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Full text of "Persistence of Vision: The Films of Robert Altman"

PERSISTENCE OF VISION: 
THE FILMS OF ROBERT ALTMAN 



by 

NEIL FEINEMAN 



A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE COUNCIL OF 

THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE 
DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY 



UNI\rERSITY OF FLORIDA 
1976 



To Jan, 
who somehow lived through it 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS 

There are many people to thank; you know who you are 
already. First, my parents who convinced me not to drop 
out; my grandmother, for caring more than I did; to Char- 
lotte, Tom, my sister Carol, and my other close friends 
who had to put up with my moods and who seemed to under- 
stand; to Dolores and Sid for their concern; to Joy Ander- 
son for being there when I needed her. Also, to Louise 
Brown and the rest of the English Department for getting 
the movies; to Diane Fischler for typing this from too many 
drafts and for forcing me to work; to Jim Flavin, David 
Dunleavy, and Mark Schwed for running the machines and forc- 
ing me not to work; to Russell Merritt for showing me what 
movies are all about; to my committee members. Dr. David 
Stryker, Dr. Sidney Homan, and Dr. Alfred Clubok for their 
time, interest, and signatures. 

Most of all, I would like to thank Dr. William Childers 
and Dr. Ben Pickard. You spent an obscene amount of time 
helping me and just listening to me complain. Your support 
has always been appreciated deeply; you deserve the credit 
for whate-/er polish and refinement the work has. I wish I 
could be more eloquent; I owe you both too much. 



Ill 



TABLE OF CONTENTS 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT S 

ABSTRACT 

INTRODUCTION 
Notes 

CHAPTER 1: ALTMAN ON ALTMAN 

CHAPTER 2: THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK 

CHAPTER 3 : MASH 

CHAPTER 4: BREWSTER McCLOUD 
Notes 

CHAPTER 5: McCABE AND MRS. MILLER 
Notes 

CHAPTER 6 : IMAGES 
Notes 

CHAPTER 7: THE LONG GOOD-BYE 
Notes 

CHAPTER 8: THIEVES LIKE US 
Notes 

CHAPTER 9: CALIFORNIA SPLIT 

CHAPTER 10: NASHVILLE 
Notes 

CONCLUSION: THE AUTEUR 

BIBLIOGRAPHY 

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH 



PAGE 

iii 

iv 

1 
5 

6 

8 

18 

31 

43 

44 
77 

78 
102 

103 
125 

126 

145 

146 

172 
187 

189 

209 

211 



XV 



Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate Council 

of the University of Florida 

in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements 

for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy 

PERSISTENCE OF VISION: 
THE FILMS OF ROBERT ALTMAN 

by 

Neil Feineman 

August, 19 76 

Chairman: John B, Pickard 
Major Department: English 

Robert Altman is one of the most prolific of all the 
contemporary American directors; since 1969, he has directed 
nine feature films. Although only I^IASH has enjoyed major 
commercial success, Altman has a cult following that in- 
cludes many of our most respected film critics, actors, and 
technicians, as well as countless film scholars and students. 
Because he is so respected by his fellow artists and by 
visible film people, his influence undoubtedly will be much 
greater than his box-office clout. But even without the 
framework of his potential importance to film history, his 
movies are beautiful, complex, and unusual enough to de- 
serve critical attention. In addition to being its own in- 
dependent entity, each film draws from and refines the other 
Altman films. Because they are so varied in genre and 
period but are so similar in style and theme, Altman seems 
to be a true American auteur . By treating each film as 
both an individual offering and a part of a collective body 
of work, this examination of Altman' s movies will capitalize 

V 



on the structure but avoid the doctrinaire biases of the 
auteur theory. . 

Altman's first three films, That Cold Day in the Park , 
MASH, and Brewster McCloud are artistically uneven; as in- 
dividual films, they are less successful than his later 
movies. These three film.s do establish Altman's basic 
values of the loneliness of the individual and his inability 
to succeed and hint at Altman's episodic, non-linear, and 
emotional way of telling a story. Although each is of some 
interest in its own right, they are more valuable as illus- 
trations of Altman's as yet unrefined strengths and weak- 
nesses. 

With his next three films, McCabe and Mrs. Miller , 
Images, and The Long Good-bye , Altman develops his visual 
style and thematic concerns. Each is a reworking of a film 
genre, but sees the genre through the perspective of the 
egocentric, isolated individual in a hostile, dangerous 
world. Each is also a beautifully shot and constructed 
film, obtaining its continuity and consistency respectively 
through the narrative and characters, through its editing, 
and through its music and theme. 

Thieves Like Us , California Split, and Uashville all 
directly relate to the earlier Altman films. Drawing from 
the other movies, these three reiterate, deepen, and darken 
Altman's world view and show Altman *s increasing skill as a 
film-maker. They also raise a question: after these nine 
films, which seem to be a com^pleted body of work, where 

vi 



can Altman go? What can he do that he has not done? The 
answer lies, of course, with his next nine movies. 



VI 1 



INTRODUCTION 

I was not prepared that August 1971 night for what I 
was to see at the Esquire Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin. 
After the movie was over, I did not know why I had been 
so moved; I only knew no other film had touched me so 
deeply. Hopefully, five years and many film courses since 
that first exposure to McCabe and Mrs. Miller , I am more 
articulate about my emotional reaction. And as of this 
writing, there have been eight other Altman movies, with 
more on the way, and other directors who have moved mie. 
Still, however, I will always owe most to Robert Altman 
and, deep down, will always belong to McCabe and Mrs. Miller . 

Unlike many analyses of contemporary auteurs, I have 
made no attempt to disguise my affection for the films or 
the personal biases behind the discussions. After all, 
one of Altman 's most appealing traits is his insistence on 
the viewer's emotional reaction. Even when his movies are 
cold and cynical, like The Long Good-bye and Nashville , 
he includes us in his design. As Joan Tewksbury, Nashville 's 
scriptwriter, says, "All you have to do is add yourself 
as the twenty-fifth character and know that whatever you 
think about the film is right, even if you think the film 
is wrong. " 



Once my response is added to the other characters , 
then, my Nashville becomes complete. More importantly, 
since my response is different from anyone else's, it dif- 
ferentiates my film experience from everyone else's. Since 
the emotional experience is personal, the analysis must be, 
as well. After all, who can better explain my reaction 
than myself. 

Perhaps because Altman demands this personal and emo- 
tional response, rather than an analytical or rational 
one, and because his films stress the visual and subtle, 
little has been written about Altman ' s movies. Even after 
TSIashville , a full fledged media event, much of the belated 
attention focused on Altman has taken the form of mild 
gossip or superficial summaries of his career and person- 
ality. Had there been an extensive amount of research, 
however, I still would have concentrated on my reaction 
to the movies; Altman 's movies are too alive to reduce them 
to an academic cataloguing of other people's perceptions. 

Keeping this in mind, there have been several informa- 
tive articles and interviews that help explain Altman. 
These include the excellent article about the selling of 
Nashville in the June 13, 1975 issue of New Times , an 
interview with Altman in the Chicago Reader of July 5, 
1975, and the reviews of Brewster , Images , and The Long 
Good-bye in various issues of Film Quarterly . Whenever a 
source like these has been helpful or pursues a point dif- 
ferently or more extensively, I have noted the source in 



the chapter notes. For the most part, however, this analy- 
sis does not pretend to be a scholarly compendium and re- 
view of the Altman literature, but deals more directly with 
the movies themselves. 

I have begun my discussion with That Cold Day in the 
Park. Because I did not have access to Altman' s television 
work, the James Dean documentary, and Countdown , his unsuc- 
cessful and mediocre first film, I can only write about the 
nine films since then. After viewing each of these several 
times, I found them conveniently grouping themselves into 
three phases of Altman' s development. 

The first three. That Cold Day , MASH , and Brewster 
McCloud, are uneven movies. Failing to develop themselves 
fully, they function more significantly as illustrations 
of Altman' s as yet unrefined strengths and weaknesses. As 
a result, my discus sions of these three films center on 
their potential and implications for Altman 's future work. 

The next three movies represent Altman' s first mature 
efforts; because each is a variation of a particular genre, 
I examine it against a classic of its genre. McCabe and 
Mrs. Miller , a complex social study of the settling of the 
West, a beautiful photographic essay, and an enduring love 
story, is compared to Stagecoach . Images is juxtaposed 
against a simpler subjective thriller. Repulsion . Although 
similarities exist between the tv70 films. Images uses the 
metaphor of schizophrenia to develop an abstract investiga- 
tion of the nature of the film experience that forces the 



viewer to feel Kathryn's madness and accept the film as 
its own reality. When Altman turns to The Long Good-bye , 
he amalgamates the essences of The Maltese Falcon and The 
Big Sleep so that he can present the private eye as he 
really is, a moralistic, egoistical vigilante. With this 
film, Altman' s style becomes fully developed, refined, and 
familiar; the overlapping dialogue, the rambling pace, the 
abrupt and unexplained characterizations and incidents, the 
unhappy ending, the isolated individual, and the hostile 
world are by now expected and integrated components of the 
Altman experience. 

Because they have so many other Altman films to draw 
from, the next three films differ. Thieves Like Us , Cali - 
fornia' Split , and Nashville constantly allude to the earlier 
films and deal with the same themes of the impermanence of 
love and the limited power of the individual. Thus, 
Thieves is more than Altman' s gangster film or answer to 
Bonnie and Clyde ; it is also Altman 's remake of McCabe and 
Mrs . Miller , replacing McCabe ' s tenderness with a chilling 
bitterness. In the same way, California Split has more in 
common with The Long Good-bye than it does with gambling 
movies like The Hustler or The Sting . Finally, a knowledge 
of McCabe and Thieves makes a viewing of Nashville much 
easier and richer. In the other films, Altman 's social 
philosophy provides a context for his characters; in Nash- 
ville, the characters are used to make a socio-political 
statem.ent. McCabe has prepared us well, giving us an 



historical precedent to help judge and understand that 
statement. Although the last three films are significant 
and rewarding in themselves, they become even more satisfy- 
ing and intricate when seen as a continuation of Altman's 
vision. Thus, these films are treated less as experiments 
in genre and primarily as parts of Altman's film vision. 

Before examining the films, however, I would like to 
present a collection of statements Altman has made at vari- 
ous times in his career on the way he works. 



■'" Joan Tewkesbury, Nashville (New York, 1976), p. 3, 



CHAPTER 1 
ALTMAN ON ALTMAN 



'!r think I'm more of an impressionist. I think I^m 
dealing with atmosphere and impressions more than realism." 

Chicago Reader , July 4, 1975. 
Page 10. 

"I never preplan a shot. Whatever happens almost 

dictates itself. Whatever the circumstances are. The 

style has already been set, and it sort of dictates itself." 

Chicago Reader , July 4, 19 75. 
Page 10. 

"This film follows the script a lot closer than any- 
one who worked on it w^ill think, including me." 

New Times , June 13, 197 5. 
Page 54. 

"One of the things I'm jealous of is your (the audi- 
ences' s) privilege of seeing the movie for the first time. 
None of us will ever know what that's like." 

New Times, June 13, 1975. 
Page 54". 

"I try to get a little over my head, try to get a 

in trouble, try to keep myself frightened, do things that 

are impossible. It helps me keep fairly straight." 

Midwest Magazine , July 27, 1975. 
6 Page 13. 



"I don't try to lead you from one place to the other. 
I try to put you in a place. I'm not going to tell you 
anything; I'm going to show you something. I'm not even 
going to show you something; I'm going to let you see some- 
thing. And if you don't help me, my picture can't be any 
good. If I have to do all the work for you, m.y picture 
isn't any good." 

Chicago Reader , July 4, 1975. 
Page 10. 

"I'm looking for surprises. If we had just taken what 

was in my head and put that vision on film, it would have 

been a pretty lousy movie. Or at least very, very ordinary. 

One head, no matter how good - well, it just can't be the 

same as everyone bringing something to it. So in that 

sense everything is a surprise, but I'm not surprised by 

the way it came out. I mean, we knew what we wanted." 

New Times , June 13, 1975. 
Page 54, 

"The son of a bitch doesn't pay me anything. But when 
he wants me, I'll be there. He lets me act." 

Keenan Wynn on Altman 
■ New Times , June 13, 1975. 
Page 55. 

"The movies don't fail, the audiences fail." 

Midwest Magazine , July 27, 1975, 
Page 13. 



CHAPTER 2 
THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK 



That Cold Day in the Park , Altman's first major fea- 
ture film, is ultimately uninvolving and pretentious. It 
does show, however, that Altman has always been dissatisfied 
with passively watched, unambiguous movies. Also, it of- 
fers all of Altman's strengths and weaknesses in their un- 
refined, easily recognizable states. 

Perhaps most immediately noticeable is Altman's lei- 
surely pacing. Dealing with the familiar suspense themes 
of kidnapping, thwarted sexual desires, madess, and murder, 
That Cold Day's genre suggests a fast pace. But as he will 
do later in Images, which borrows many of these same themes, 
Altman does not generate suspense through tense and in- 
creasingly quick editing. Instead, audience involvement 
is heightened through the construction of a dense, claus- 
trophobic atmosphere and through the slow but threatening 
character development. 

To achieve this atmosphere, Altman holds the audience 
captive in and by the oppressively heavy, albeit beautiful ^ 
Art Deco apartment for the first third of the film. Al- 
though Art Deco can be light, airy, and amusing, like the 
Fred Astaire-Ginger Rodgers musicals that showcased it, 



Frances' apartment is a series of stifling, repetitive, and 
severe geometrical patterns that allow for no m.ovement or 
deviation. The apartment, like the movie, traps us; since 
we can go nowhere else, we are forced into the apartment 
and the film's events. 

Unfortunately, however, our involvement is undercut 
by the characters' lack of appeal and by the events' shal- 
lowness. Seeing a boy huddled against the cold rain in the 
park outside her apartment, Frances invites the boy in. 
Since the boy does not talk for the first third of the 
movie, we are forced to listen to Frances' com.pulsive, 
constant chatter. Her incessant talking and nervousness, 
not to mention her initial interest in the boy, are indica- 
tions of her unresolved, repressed, and unhealthy sexual 
interest. The boy is equally strange, punctuating his 
weird and silent passivity with short and unexpected bursts 
of bizarre dancing and musical explosions. Despite their 
strangeness, however, they remain curiosities, too mild to 
be generally frightening or threatening and too remote to 
be alive. Also, rather than focus and thus create and 
identification with one of the characters, the camera di- 
vides its attention between the two. The characters' lack 
of vitality and the film's failure to establish a point of 
view keep us in the audience detached and uninvolved. V 

The diffusion of focus continues in the next segment. 
The boy, whose name is never revealed, escapes out of the 
bedroom window and goes to his squalid hippie pad that he. 



10 

shares with his sexually voracious sister and her drug- 
dealing, leering boyfriend. Like Garbo, the boy finally 
talks; his sister explains that he has always retreated 
into silence, sometimes for weeks. After this information 
and after an uninspired evening of smoking pot, the boy re- 
turns to Frances'. Perhaps he wants to escape from the 
filthy and cramped pad, perhaps he has nothing better to 
do, perhaps he is intrigued by the new game. At any rate, 
the boy gives Frances some hash-laced cookies; they eat 
them and spend the afternoon playing thinly disguised and 
unresolved sex games. Before the games become real, how- 
ever, the boy sneaks into what has become his bedroom and 
falls asleep. 

Had Altman made the boy a more attractive character, 
our interest and involvement in his fate and the movie would 
have been heightened. But since he is cruelly tantalizing 
to Frances and since Frances is becoming increasingly pathe- 
tic, we have nowhere to focus our emotions. Because we 
are not directed, we are not pulled into the movie. 

In perhaps the film's best sequence, Frances next goes 
to the gynecologist. What is im.portant here is not the 
scene's contribution to the plot, but Altman' s execution 
of it. While Frances nervously waits for the doctor, the 
soundtrack picks up the disjointed conversation of three 
other patients. One is quite naive and amuses the other 
two more experienced women by her confusion over the loca- 
tion of the clitoris and over the size of men's genitals. 



11 

The conversation, appropriate for a gynecologist's office, 
continues the film's recurrent sexual concerns, even though 
it adds nothing to the plot or the character development. 
It does, however, add texture to the film. Its humor and 
absurdity are an unexpected and welcome change from the 
film's heavy mood; it momentarily disorients us. Catching 
us off guard, it makes us react emotionally, rather than 
intellectually. Altman will become increasingly reliant on 
this non-linear narrative technique; even at this early 
date, it is startlingly effective. 

The following scene reveals Altman 's talent for struc- 
turing his movies. While Frances is out, the boy's sister, 
Nina, invites herself into Frances' apartment. Over the 
boy's protests, Nina draws a bath, freely uses Frances' 
toiletries, and soon pulls the boy into the tub. They 
splash and cavort; then Nina tries to seduce her astonished 
and unwilling brother. Curiously, this scene is the first 
one that elicits an intense emotional reaction; throughout 
this scene there is an almost obscene air of destruction 
and violation. This reaction is caused primarily by the 
film's structure. Although the characters are not people 
with whom we identify, the apartment is beautiful. Since 
the first half hour of the movie takes place in the apart- 
ment and since the camera lingers more lovingly on its 
furnishings and objects than it does on the characters, 
we become comfortable and familiar with the apartment. 
When Nina breaks into the apartment, then, it is as if she 



12 

is breaking into our apartment; when she mistreats and care- 
lessly handles. the objects in the apartment, she seems to 
be abusing our property. Unfortunately, Altman is not 
able to transfer our reaction and concern to the characters; 
the scene's impact is, however, proof of Altman 's ability 
to develop an emotional response through his careful and 
almost subliminal structure. 

The film's momentum continues with Frances' return to 
the apartment. She is unable to prevent the older doctor 
who loves her from coming up with her. She checks the 
boy's room, sees he is sleeping, and locks his door. While 
she is doing this, the doctor begins to tell her that he 
wants her. As he talks, she flashes back to the gynecolo- 
gist's cold and dehumanizing examination, to his rubber 
gloves and shiny chrome instruments. The connection be- 
tween the two doctors is unmistakable and effective. The 
scene's beautiful editing and sophisticated handling of 
time as non-linear and flexible contrasts with the rest of 
the film's straightforward presentation. Because it is so 
jarring and not integrated into the rest of the film, the 
scene may be considered gimmicky; more importantly, however, 
it indicates Altman' s as yet undeveloped talent for creative 
editing and thematic presentation. 

After the doctor leaves, Frances enters the boy's bed- 
room and tells him that she is lonely and repulsed by the 
doctor and the old people around her. As she gets more 
sexually explicit in her language, she moves closer to 



13 

him and becomes bolder. Lying down next to him but on top 
of the blanket, she tells him to make love to her. Finally, 
after he does nothing, she reaches for him. She is shocked 
to find out that his sleeping body is a blanket and his 
head only a doll. Although she will later repay the boy 
with the murder in the bed, for now, she is understandably 
shaken. She has been cruelly humiliated and mocked, while 
we have been teased into falsely expecting the sexual con- 
frontation the movie has been building to from its first 
scene. 

Altman has, in fact, been manipulating and then frus- 
trating our expectations from the very beginning. Frances' 
first locking of the door was an unexpected twist that cut 
short any early sexual activity; the boy's silence was 
robbed of truly grotesque implications when it was revealed 
to be a childish sham. Even Frances' failure to catch Nina 
in the apartment worked against the cross cutting of Frances' 
anxious glances towards the window, or at least the direc- 
tion, of the apartment. These remain little twists; the 
bedroom scene is the first in which Altman successfully 
catches us totally off guard and disarms us comipletely. 
Later in his career, Altman will become more comprehensive 
and ambitious in his baiting and then exploiting our ex- 
pectations. In That Cold Day , however, this reversal of 
expectations is kept on a smaller scale. 

To repay the boy for his trick and to make sure that 
he cannot leave her anymore, Frances waits until he returns 



14 

and then locks him in the apartment. Even though he still 
refuses to sleep with her, Frances will not let him go. 
Torn between her desire to keep him and her fear of losing 
him, she decides to get him a whore that v/ill keep him 
sexually satisfied. As she waits in a barren cafe for the 
whore, two lesbians visually and physically caress each 
other. Even though they are not directly related to the 
plot or characters, they, like the women in the film's 
other waiting room (the gynecologist's), add atmosphere 
and dimension to the film. Where the three women are used 
verbally, the two lesbians are visual, if sordid, relief. 
Both incidents are free from any intellectual or rational 
explication, but add to the film's emotional impact. 

The remainder of the film is more plot oriented. The 
boy and the whore try to make love, Frances listens to 
their efforts, bursts in, plunges a butcher's knife into 
the bodies under the blanket, kills the whore, and then 
tries to comfort the boy. By now quite mad, she tells the 
boy, who is crying now, that everything will be all right. 
As the credits begin to roll, Altman adds his final touch, 
Frances' voice whispering, "I want to make love to you." 

These final scenes lack the impact of the bar, bed- 
room, and bath sequences of the middle part of the movie. 
They do not have the earlier scenes' emotional power; they 
also do not have much narrative strength. Thus, while they 
show Frances procuring and murdering the whore, the final 
scenes fail to explain who Frances is trying to kill. They 



15 

also do not satisfactorily develop the action; there is a 
potentially good story here but it is ineffectively pre- 
sented. As Altinan will show in Images , he does not have 
to explain the events to convey the emotional content of 
the characters' lives. In That Cold Day , however, he simply 
does not generate the emotional involvement. By keeping 
us on the outside of both vapid, unattractive main charac- 
ters, Altman gives us no human alternatives or dimensions 
that would emotionally engage us. In addition, by failing 
to give us a well-developed story, he does not satisfy us 
on a rational and narrative level either. 

When four films and four years later, Altman takes 
many of the ideas and situations in That Cold Day and makes 
Images , he has a better control over his technique and a 
better understanding of the relationship between style- and 
theme. Using the metaphor of schizophrenia for the ar- 
tistic experience, he broadens his concern from the simpler 
and narrower suspense thriller. He keeps the emphasis on 
objects, the soft focus transitions, the shots through 
glass, the fluid use of time, the creative use of sound. 
In Images , however, he has an artistic reason for using 
them. In addition, he adds a strong point of view that 
enables him to withhold any clinical background inform.ation 
but compensates for the lack of focus and audience identi- 
fication. 

Although That Cold Day looks more like Images than 
the other Altman films, it resembles all of them. Its 



16 

leisurely pace, emphasis on the emotional response at the 
expense of the. rational one, its careful structure, its 
overlapping dialogue, its beautiful photography all will 
become Altman trademarks and vehicles in his development 
of an artistic philosophy. 

That Cold Day also announces some of Altman 's recur- 
rent themes. There are no positive elements here. The 
rich are empty, bored, and self-indulgent; the poor and 
the middle class are prim, naive, inconsequential; the 
hippies are a dirtier version of the rich; those in between 
are pimps, whores, and older versions of the hippies. Even 
the doctors are cold, impersonal, disgusting. There is no 
permanent love or even a satisfying temporary escape in 
casual sex. From Nina's unbridled heterosexuality to 
homosexuality to sex for fun to sex for money, there is 
an absence of dignity or satisfaction. Sex becomes a com- 
pulsive way to pass the time, to make a living, or to trig- 
ger a psychotic reaction. There is no alternative for 
lasting happiness or meaning, no hope for the happy ending. 
The world in Altman' s films, so aptly described in the 
film's title, is cruel, hopeless, and cold. 

That Cold Day not only contains clues of Altman' s 
strengths, but also alerts us to the limitations or faults 
inherent in his style. The leisurely pace and creative 
use of sound can lead to self-indulgence and inspire bore- 
dom as easily as they can rapt involvement. The reliance 
on emotional moments and atmosphere can create unnecessary 



17 

confusion and alienation, rather than increased viewer par- 
ticiparion. The attention paid to structure and the de- 
light in upsetting expectations may be coldly manipulative 
and mechanical, instead of intelligent and fresh. By mak- 
ing the type of movies he does, Altman courts these dangers 
and negative evaluations; since he demands a more active 
viewer, he invites disappointment, disapproval, disagree- 
ment. As viewers of Altman' s movies, then, our responsibil- 
ity is not to like Altman, but to be active, honest viewers 
who demand the same integrity and responsibility from 
Altman himself. 



CHAPTER 3 
MASH 



Although MASH is Altman's most commercially success- 
ful movie, it is also his least interesting and most super- 
ficial. It is motivated by a single idea, that the mili- 
tary, religion, and marriage are inhumane institutions 
that imprison the human spirit. To convey this theme, 
Altman uses effective but stereotypical characters and dis- 
arming visual tricks. For all its cleverness, however, 
MASH is an empty and shallov7 movie. 

The film begins as Hawk-eye comes to Korea and is mis- 
taken for a jeep driver by Duke, another arrival. Sensing 
the potential humor. Hawk-eye throws himself into the role 
of chauffeur and drives Duke to their camp. Immediately, 
his character and the film's values are established. 
Rather than be imprisoned by false roles and status. Hawk- 
eye mocks the roles and the system they legitimize. His 
theft of the jeep and his impersonation of its driver re- 
veal his quick and playful wit, his innate rebelliousness, 
and his lack of seriousness. 

Trapper, the other ringleader, displays an even 
greater aggressiveness than Hawk-eye, as shown in his at- 
tacks on Frank Burns and in his maneuvering to get a free 



19 

trip to Japan. Sharing the same irreverence and tastes, 
Trapper and Hawk-eye are the ideal team. Each knows what 
the other is thinking; they spontaneously act in unison. 
Because they are so flexible and so quick, they are able 
to seize control over any situation and defeat the more 
rigid military establishment. They totally ignore, for 
example, the military conventions and are thus untouched 
by the military restrictions. When they go to Japan, they 
do not acknowledge any of the military hospital's rules; 
since they are not bound by any prescribed pattern of ac- 
tion, they constantly outwit the hospital staff and thus 
are sure of getting what they want, be it food, a golf 
course, or an operating room. 

The film's other characters are also defined by their 
ability to get around their roles and function humanely in 
dehumanizing situations. Colonel Blake, for instance, is 
a positive, decent character because of his complete in- 
difference to his role as base commander and his incompe- 
tence in his enforcement of military regulations. Rather 
than the military, the Colonel loves fishing and nurses. 
His assistant Radar, on the other hand, is so efficient 
that he can anticipate the Colonel's instructions before 
the Colonel even gives them. Radar is positive because 
he uses his efficiency to twist the Colonel's instructions 
to the group's advantage. Radar, as his name implies, is 
a key figure in keeping the MASH unit going, be it by 
stealing the Colonel's blood or hooking the loudspeaker 



to Hot Lips' tent. The priest, Dago Red, is also sympathe- 
tic, primarily .because he listens more to the men than to 
God. Kindly and devout. Dago never pushes his role as a 
man of God but abdicates it whenever challenged. When 
giving last rites to a soldier who has just died, for ex- 
ample, he obeys a doctor who tells him to stop paying at- 
tention to the dead and help assist a patient who is still 
alive. Also, when he learns of Painless ^s problem of im- 
potence, he realizes his personal inability to help and 
turns the matter over to Hawk-eye. Even though he ulti- 
mately is reduced to blessing a jeep, he is a flexible and 
unceremonious person. 

Like these three, the rest of the characters are like- 
able and positive, primarily because they are pleasant 
components of this zany group. Painless, for example, has 
the biggest penis in the Army; Duke is Trapper's and Hawk- 
eye's friend and tent-mate; Dish forgets her vow of fidelity 
to her husband and her desire for Hawk-eye by going to bed 
with Painless 's enormous organ; Colonel Blake's girlfriend 
keeps his mind off military matters; even the General is 
an overgrown college boy, unable to concentrate on military 
affairs when football is men cloned. These are happy, fun- 
loving people, with whom we identify. 

There are only two sustained negative portrayals in 
the film, Frank Burns and Hot Lips Houlihan. Of the two. 
Burns is the more threatening. His religious fanaticism 
is cued by his teaching Ho John, the Korean gopher and 



21 

camp mascot, to read the Bible, his ostentatious and lengthy 
public prayers., and his unwavering seriousness and super- 
ficial righteousness. Despite his faith, however. Burns 
bullies a male nurse into falsely accepting responsibility 
for a soldier's death. Also, Burns, unlike the other MASH 
doctors, is professionally incompetent, even though he is 
the only one that is impressed with the title and implied 
status of his roles of doctor and major. 

The Burns' saga is continued in his relationship with 
Hot Lips. Kindred spirits, they decide to write a letter 
to their superiors that will expose the nonmilitary charac- 
ter of the MASH unit. In effect, they are "squealing" to 
the authorities because no one is playing by the rules. 
As they become involved in their conspiracy, they also be- 
come involved in each other. They look at each other, sud- 
denly and passionately and noisely kiss each other, and 
just as suddenly straighten their clothes and rush to the 
mess hall. For them, sex is like the military; they have 
respect for the form and look of the act but miss its 
emotional intensity and feeling. Later, when they finally 
make love, it is only after agreeing that God brought them 
together and that his "will (must) be done." Unlike the 
rest of the camp, then, they must hypocritically rational- 
ize their nonreligious desires through the misapplication 
and emptiness of their religious doctrines. 

Even their lovemaking is indicative of their absurd 
personalities. Devoid of any grace, naturalness, or 



22 

dignity, it consists of clumsy grabbing and overly loud 
and heavy moaning. "Kiss my hot lips," she begs him re- 
peatedly. Unknown to them, their noisy coupling is being 
piped through the camp's sound system for the entire base's 
amusement. Although the humor in this sequence stems from 
Hot Lips' and Burns' humiliation and is thus ugly, they 
are so unsympathetic that the cruelty becomes humorous. 

When Burns is taunted into a nervous breakdown by Hawk- 
eye the next day and is carried out of the camp and film 
in a straight jacket, the loudspeaker plays "Sayonara" and 
the audience laughs. Because Burns is so absurd and be- 
cause the rest of the MASH unit is so likeable and happy. 
Burns' mental condition and mistreatment by Hawk-eye is 
minimized. Even at the end, he never becomes sympathetic 
but remains an object of ridicule. 

Altman's tacit approval of the camp's treatment of 
Burns is continued with Hot Lips' transformation. When 
she arrives, she is a ridiculous character, making small 
talk in the operating room, referring to the military as 
her home, and thinking that Frank Burns is the fine speci- 
men of military excellence. Her mating with Burns gives 
her a nickname and continues her degradation. The shower 
scene adds to it; she is forced to shower nude in front 
of the camp so that a bet over her natural hair color can 
be ascertained. Once again the unit's cruelty is dis- 
guised and endorsed by the film's structure of heroes and 
villains. Because her unflagging devotion to the military 



and her resulting disdain for the MASH people have caused 
an alliance with Burns, she becomes a target for laughs, 
regardless of the joke's underlying brutality. 

Hot Lips is, however, different than Burns; although 
she too has a misguided loyalty to the military, she does 
not share his religious fanaticism. She is also different 
because whatever her faults, she is a "damn good nurse." 
When she breaks down in front of a bewildered Colonel 
Blake, she does not get carried out but instead begins her 
acceptance into the group. Soon she and Duke will go to 
bed, signaling her certification as part of the MASH team. 
And shortly thereafter, she will become head cheerleader 
for the football game, the traditionally prestigious symbol 
of female leadership. Unlike Burns, then, she has the 
ability to change and adopt a new set of values that give 
her greater happiness. 

When Hot Lips changes her values, she changes from a 
"bad" or ridiculous character to a more likeable and hap- 
pier one. Burns, however, is less flexible; because he 
never changes, he is destroyed and sent away. Although 
Hot Lips changes her code from an oppressive reliance on 
empty authoritarian roles and institutions and becomes 
freer and healthier as a person, her transition from bad 
to good character must be looked at skeptically and care- 
fully. As long as she and Burns do not have the correct 
standards, they undergo much humiliation, which seems both 
humorous and justified because of the inhumanity and 



24 



boorishness of their beliefs. The hiimor of the film is, 
then, in great part based upon the intolerance and insen- 
sitivity of the MASH unit and, by implication, the laugh- 
ing audience. 

Burns and Hot Lips can be laughed at with immunity be- 
cause they are charicatures and stereotypes, too broadly 
drawn to the fully human. The stereotypes give us a dis- 
tance and superiority that dehumanizes them and thus makes 
them safe targets. In the same way, the good guys are 
stereotypes; we like them because of external conditions, 
not because they are good individuals. We see Hawk-eye and 
Trapper battle hypocrisy and bring life to any situation 
they enter; their fundamental honesty and refreshing re- 
belliousness, plus their expertise as surgeons, make them 
likeable and identifiable, even despite their cruel streaks. 
The other characters, however, are defined primarily by 
their integration with the group; if they do not detract 
from the free-wheeling values of the MASH unit, they are 
positive characters. When they threaten to upset the main- 
tenance of the group, however, they are ostracized and 
humiliated and scorned. MASH is more like a summer camp 
than an adult military establishment; its anti-authority 
values, emphasis on fun and games, absence of relationships 
that entail responsibility, and power of the group norms 
give MASH an adolescent quality. This immaturity is re- 
flected in the puerile nature of many of the jokes and the 
hidden degradation and superficiality of much of the humor 
of MASH. 



25 

Both the characterizations and the hiiinor ox MASH , then, 
depend upon our unambiguous identification with the ob- 
viously right values and with our acceptance of their broad, 
fast presentation. The situations with Hot Lips and Burns 
have, had they been treated humanely, an inherent sadness 
and cruelty to them. If Dish had been a more fully defined 
character, Painless' suicide and its underlying sexism and 
anti-homosexuality would be patently offensive. If the 
importance of winning and the rampant cheating in the foot- 
ball game had been treated with more subtlety, the football 
game could have become a serious satire rather than a 
hilarious lark. MASH , however, is so sure of its values 
that it is oblivious to these ambiguities, intolerances, 
and weaknesses. Rather than aiming for important insights, 
the movie settles for a broad, easy, slapstick presentation. 

The Last Supper sequence illustrates the adolescent 
quality of MASH ' s humor. Painless decides to cheat on his 
three fiancees; this is the first cheap joke - Painless is 
so well endowed that he needs and is able to satisfy three 
women. He then is unable to perform, which he interprets 
as evidence that he is a latent homosexual. Rather than 
accept this. Painless decides to commit suicide, which ex- 
plains the film's title song, "Suicide is Painless." The 
rest of the group understandably do not share Painless' 
panic and depression, but decide to humor him. They plan 
to stage his suicide and then provide him with a woman 
who will unexpectedly disprove his fears. After an 



26 

elaborate satire on "The Last Supper, " everyone gives Pain- 
less his last regards and he solemnly takes the big black 
pill that will kill him. It is, of course, a fake pill; 
as he sleeps. Hawk-eye and Painless' equipment convince 
Dish to go to bed with him. As she snuggles next to him. 
Painless wakes up and regains his form,. The next day, he 
has forgotten his troubles. 

This scene is undeniably funny; the religious parody, 
the elaborate and meaningless ceremony and seriousness, and 
the group's sincere if irreverent concern for Painless' 
mental condition all contribute to the scene's success. 
The idea, however, is devoid of any subtlety or insight; 
it does not reveal anything about the plot or the charac- 
ters. Regardless of the charm and humor of the scene, all 
its details reinforce the final effect. Once that is ob- 
tained, the idea loses its freshness; on the second or 
third viewing, the scene becomes tedious. 

In addition to the lack of subtlety, the scene is 
fueled by an adolescent assumption, the idea of a large 
penis and sexual pleasure. Painless is defined in the 
film solely by the size of his penis; his size and subse- 
quently his prowess make his impotence and his depression 
more notable, just as it makes Dish's reactions explainable 
and humorous. Again, although it is funny, especially on 
a first viewing, the scene rests upon an adolescent preoc- 
cupation with the size of Painless' penis. And like all 
adolescent jokes, the humor wears thin after a while. 



27 

Even Altman's stylistic devices, usually used to add 
diffuseness, ambiguity, and texture, are used in MASH to 
single-mindedly add to the unambiguous statement on the 
inhumanity of war, the military, and religion. The over- 
lapping dialogue, for instance, does not add levels of 
structure and contrasting detail but merely reinforces al- 
ready apparent relationships. At the film's beginning, for 
example, the women officers are almost inaudibly talking 
about soap and sex, foreshadowing their definition by 
sexuality. When the doctors in the operating room mumble 
about the nurses' "boobs getting in the way" or about a 
particular nurse's figure, they only reiterate the loose 
and prevalent sexual atmosphere of the camp. And when some- 
one asks if a patient is an enlisted man, who get bigger 
stitches than the officers, the satire on the military is 
repeated. Like the cheerleaders' chant, "69 is Divine," 
the comments are funny but, if missed, leave no gaps or 
ramifications in this film experience. If they are caught, 
they add another laugh, a slightly different version of the 
same joke. 

The loudspeaker is no different. It adds to the noise 
on the soundtrack, is an editing device, and provides struc- 
ture and foreshadowing with its announcements of missing 
drugs, VD epidemics, absurd regulations, and medical warn- 
ings. It predicts Ho John's attempt at draft evasion by 
taking handfuls of amphetamines and also the pot smoking at 
the football gam.e; both by now dated attem.pts at topicality 



28 

and courting of safe and predeteinrtined audience responses. 
Again a device .is used not to add depth but to further an 
already clear statement. 

The loudspeaker is used in another way as well. In 
addition to playing music that directly comments on the 
visuals, as with the "Sayonara" to Burns' exit, it an- 
nounces the showing of movies on the base. The films are 
usually war movies like The Halls of Montezuma and are an- 
nounced by the reading of the films' press releases. At 
mash's end, the loudspeaker tells us the film is over by 
reading MASH ' s own press blurb and introducing the cast. 
There are other movie allusions as well. Hawk-eye's first 
appearance in the film is accompanied by the traditional 
and unmistakably dramatic movie music of the hero; Burns' 
and Hot Lips' first kiss is a parody of the old movie kisses; 
Dish's and Painless' lovemaking to a Handel-like choir and 
a shot of the sun rising over the tent are satires of Holly- 
wood's traditional inability to treat sex naturally; Hawk- 
eye's and Trapper's roles when they deal with the military 
police in Japan are stolen from countless American "B" 
movies. Unlike the later Altman films, however, these al- 
lusions do not seem artistically purposeful. Instead, they 
resemble Mel Brooks' self-conscious attempts at drawing 
attention to the medium for a laugh. Rather than expand 
the film's focus, the allusions are cute but superficial 
and thrown away. 



29 

The blood in the operating room is still another suc- 
cessful gimmick. Veins pop and guts flow amidst wise- 
cracks and sexual games. The juxtaposition of humor and 
gruesome blood is effective, making real the human waste 
of war, exploiting the potential for black comedy, and 
breaking new ground for the film. Its repetition in the 
film wears thin, however; since it never really develops 
beyond the obvious contrast between gore and laughs, it 
becomes a predictable and easy device. 

MASH , then, is an explicit and savage attack on the 
abuses and hypocrises of the military and religion, empty 
forms that shackle people to false values and legitimize 
inept leaders. Impulses and spontaneity, MASH says, are 
more important and more beneficial; if followed, they will 
lead to at least temporary happiness. Thus, Hot Lips 
learns by the end of the film to love, laugh, jump, and 
scream; even though her relationship with Duke is only 
temporary, she does have the moment. 

Despite the humor and superficial good will generated 
by the movie, much about MASH is ugly and questionable. 
The portrayal of Frank Burns is callously one-sided, as is 
Hot Lips' transformation. They exhibit an almost frighten- 
ing reliance on the group norms and on conformity, even 
though the MASH group has understandable and identifiable 
values. There is also a smugness to the anti-military, 
anti-religious, and pro-drug references that seem to capi- 
talize on already prevalent audiences' prejudices. When 



30 

MASH was released, the climate of the time disguised and 
perhaps justified MASH ' s style. Now, seven years later, 
however, the sexism, condescension, adolescence, and cruelty 
of much of I^L^kSH detracts from the movie and badly dates it. 

As we are to learn from Images , we must take a film 
on its own teorms. And MASH is so single-minded, unambiguous, 
and broad that we must admit that yes, it is a broad, sin- 
gle-minded, unambiguous - and funny - comedy. On its own 
modest terms, it succeeds. But because it set its sights 
so low, because it traded art for a quick laugh, it has 
dated itself and lost much of its effectiveness. Instead' 
of the timeless work of art it might have been, MASH now 
is only a reminder to those who share MASH ' s values that 
we too are capable of intolerance, sexism, and dehumanizing 
behavior. 



CHAPTER 4 
BREWSTER McCLOUD 



Although Brewster McCloud is as broad, excessive, and 
reliant on stereotypes as MASH, it is also a more whimsical, 
innocent, and personal movie. Rather than aim for MASH' s 
realism, Brewster is a fantasy, developing its own world 
that works on its own values. 

The first scene establishes Brewster's tone. After a 
brief speech by the lecturer, who tells us that man has al- 
ways wanted to fly or at least wanted "the freedom that 
true flight seemed to offer," we see Miss Daphne rehearsing 
"The Star Spangled Banner" in the empty Astrodome. As the 
opening credits unfold, we hear her scream that the band is 
off key. "And I want that scoreboard lighted...." As the 
band begins again, the credits also reappear; this time, the 
scoreboard has rockets bursting everywhere. As the credits 
continue, we read "title song - Frances Scott Key." Rather 
than. sophistication and subtlety, then, the humor is obvious 

and pointed. 

The next scene continues this broad style of comedy. 
Brewster drives Abraham Wright, the invalid, almost senile 
brother of Wilbur's and Orville's, on his weekly collection 
of the rents from his chain of rest homes. Obscenely ugly, 

31 



J4i 



Wright obviously enjoys himself; he hideously giggles, in- 
sults everyone,, and demands rent from patients who have 
died during the week. A contemporary Scrooge, his inhuman- 
ity and grotesque personality make him an absurdly unbe- 
lievable and comic villain. So when he and his wheelchair 
are pushed onto the freeway, when his body lands on the 
pavement, desecreated by bird droppings (an integral part 
of the killer's modus operandi), we laugh. Too broadly 
drawn to assume human dimensions, Wright becomes a carica- 
ture, a cardboard villain created only for our am.usement. 

Underneath the scene's absurdity, however, lie subtle 
details that increase the discerning viewer's enjoyment. 
Reflecting the film's concern with birds, the rest homes 
have bird names like the Feathered Nest Rest Home and the 
Blue Bird of Happiness. In addition, Wright's license 
plate reads OWL, another detail reinforcing the aviary 
theme of the movie. In the shots of Brewster and Wright 
in the car, Altman adds an arresting visual pattern by 
shooting the action through the colored automatic windows. 
As we hear the two characters, we watch the playful motion 
of the window, which goes up and down, reflecting, obscur- 
ing, or revealing Brewster, Wright, and Houston. Finally, 
the dialogue, often lost in the visual confusion and quick 
pacing, is surprisingly funny. As an old woman gives 
Wright the week's rent, for example, he asks her if she 
has given him everything. As she tells him he has "every 
last penny," he reaches into her blouse and grabs two bills, 



33 

As he drives away, he excitedly cries, "Two big Georges." 
Although a funny line, it is relatively hidden; the line 
may not add any ramifications or refinements to the overall 
situation, but it rewards the more attentive viewer unsatis- 
fied by the farcical nature of the scene. In the later 
films, the details will do more than just support and re- 
inforce the main idea. In Brewster , however, the hidden 
details add to the film's single-minded, broadly comic mood. 

Even the movie allusions, usually Altman's most subtle 
device, add to Brewster's outrageous absurdity. Margaret 
Hamilton plays both the witch in The Wizard of Oz and Miss 
Daphne in Brewster . She dies in Brewster when a black 
"nigger" bird opens her giant bird cage (shaped like the 
Astrodome) and it falls on her. The wicked witch, of course, 
was killed when Dorothy's house fell on top of her. As the 
camera pans across Miss Daphne's body, we hear an AM radio 
news report of her death. While the radio announcer de- 
scribes her red, white, and blue acrylic knit dress and 
red rhinestone shoes, we see that she is wearing the ruby 
red slippers of The Wizard . Thus, all of the scene's 
visual and verbal components combine to make its single, 
absurd, unrefined joke. 

Unlike the later Altman movies, the sound and back- 
ground visuals do not extend the scene's boundaries, but 
merely reinforce the primary idea. When the radio an- 
nouncer tells us about the red shoes, for example, we also 
see them. The lecturer describes a Crested Peacock; we 



34 

then see Frank Shaft, the strong, silent, professional de- 
tective, wearing shoes that match his luggage. After that, 
we see him open a suitcase full of turtleneck sweaters of 
different colors. Since Altman had already made his 
point, this second illustration is repetitive and unneces- 
arily obvious. 

As befitting the humor, the characters remain broadly 
drawn parodies. Had Brewster been a realistic film, the 
use of caricatures could have detracted from its effective- 
ness. Since Brewster is a fantasy, however, the characters 
need not be realistic, only recognizable. Frank Shaft, for 
example, is defined by his serious and vain self-conscious- 
ness and his intimidating, if meaningless, professionalism. 
He is a villain and his suicide is laughable not because he 
is the most serious threat to Louise and Brewster, but 
primarily because of his tiresome pomposity. Johnson, on 
the other hand, has the same job as Shaft, although he does 
not have the title or the reputation to uphold. Unlike 
Shaft, Johnson bumbles his way through the job; he whispers 
into the microphone, speaks into its wrong end, and enjoys 
Captain America comic books. Because of his incompetence, 
his sense of humor, and humanity, we like him, even if he 
is a cop. 

Louise works the same way; she murders and steals, but 
she also laughs and protects Brewster. A cross between a 
bird and a person, she bathes like a bird, has scars on 
her back from her raw shorn wings, resorts to bird sounds 



35 

when under emotional stress, and understands the true impor- 
tance of flying. She tells Brewster that "people. ... accept 
what's been told to them. They don't think that they can 
be free. They don't even believe they can be free. ... some- 
thing happens to them as they grow, and then they turn more 
and more towards earth. And when they experience sex, they 
simply settle for it." 

Because she understands the value and elusiveness of 
freedom, Louise acts like Brewster's mother, making sure 
he obeys training rules, warning him that sex will sap his 
energy and destroy him, rocking him to sleep by singing 
lullabies, and protecting him from strangers wishing him 
harm. Like most mothers, Louise can seem unduly repres- 
sive and overprotective. 

Louise, then, offers Brewster the knowledge and ability 
to fly. She has the film's secret; she alone has refused 
to compromise and knows where freedom can be found. Loyal 
to Brewster, she represents his chance to be free; when she 
kills Wright, Miss Daphne, Breen, Billy Joe, Shaft, and 
Weeks, she is protecting Brewster. She does not kill any- 
one who in the context of the film does not deserve his 
fate; thus, she still keeps our empathy and admiration. 

■ In a similar vein, Brewster becomes a positive charac- 
te-L because he is, by definition, the hero of the film. 
The archetypal individual, Brewster does, not have personal- 
ity or individuality; he is more like a blank face that 
each of us can identify with and substitute ourselves. 



36 

Because he has Louise to look out for him and because he 
attempts to fly and thus be free, Brewster is the hero, the 
character we would like to be. 

As a fantasy, then, Brewster establishes its own world 
with its own code of values. Since the characters do not 
have to function in our everyday real world, they have no 
responsibility to behave like real poeple. All they have 
to do is present their characteristics and roles in a re- 
cognizable manner; once we understand their function, we 
know how to react to them. 

Thus, Shaft is the typical professional; Wright, the 
all too familiar money-mad absentee landlord; Louise, ma- 
ternally loyal and perceptive. We can identify their roles 
and, within the context of the story, believe them. In- 
terestingly, the only unbelievable character in the film 
is the most original, the least developed, and the most 
typical of the later Altman films. Hope, the health food 
cashier, knows nothing about health foods. In addition to 
supplying Brewster with health foods, she crawls under a 
blanket and thrashes herself into sexual ecstasy. Unlike 
the other characters, she is not grounded to a recognizable 
type. We cannot believe her here because our imaginations 
arS already engaged in making the larger fantasy work; al- 
though a minor and specific character, her strange actions 
overload our imaginations by drawing attention to the 
artifice of the entire fantasy. Because she violates the 
internal consistency of the fantasy, then, Hope becomes an 
ineffective and distracting character. 



37 

Brewster ' s plot also depends on the suspension of our 
disbelief. As . a fantasy, it depends on our compliance. 
We cannot demand realism and cannot ask usually normal 
questions like how Louise got out of the camera store, how 
Haines and Mrs. Breen got to Lost World's River Adventure, 
how Shaft knew where Brewster and Susan would drive to, or 
what Louise did with Johnson. If we ask those questions, 
the movie obviously would not work. Instead, we accept the 
film's events at face value. Like the humor, the story 
either works for the individual or it does not. 

Although this demand forces the viewer to accept a 
very broad style and an implausible plot, many original and 
satisfying details remain in the movie. The lecturer, who 
hilariously turns into a bird, may not be subtle, but he 
does break the plot's linear motion. Although his compari- 
sons of the characters with birds only reinforce our per- 
ceptions, like Shaft's vanity or Louise's maternal pro- 
tectiveness, and thus become repetitive and unnecessary, the 
lecturer is original and very funny. Another effective and 
more peripheral scene is introduced by the lecturer. While 
the lecturer talks about the bathing habits of certain 
species, Altman cuts to a shot of Louise frolicking in the 
Astrodome's fountain. Suddenly, she becomes aware of the 
camera, smiles, and covers her breasts. Although it has 
nothing to do with the rest of the movie, her action con- 
vincingly conveys her exhuberance , joy, and dignity. Three 
movie allusions are also handled with subtlety. When Shaft 



38 

checks into the hotel, he notices the incessant sirens. 
Johnson explains that a group of doctors from Boston who 
do heart transplants "just sit around and wait until a 
stiff dies." Could Johnson be talking about our Boston 
doctors from MASH , the pros from Dover? Altman teases us 
with his next allusion, a poster of the film The Decline 
and Fall of a Birdwatcher . Although shown three times, the 
full title is visible only the first time; by obscuring the 
last three words of the title, Altman playfully frustrates 
the viewer who did not read the poster that first time. 
The MASH poster in Suzanne's apartment, also only fleetingly 
seen, makes another pleasant contrast with most of the 
film' s pointed approach. The scene in the amusement park 
does not really further the story, but provides a comical 
visual aside. The Lost World River Adventure has a native 
god with rolling eyes; the tour guide explains that it is 
called Shirley's temple. Should they paint Shirley's temple 
black, she wonders. Perhaps more than any other detail, 
Shirley's temple foreshadows Altman 's eye for the cinemati- 

cally absurd and his willingness to make a place for it in 

3 
his films. 

More interestingly than these details, isolated from 

the rest of the film, is the flying sequence in the middle 

of the film; it compresses the entire film into a single, 

short episode. Louise lulls Brewster to sleep; he dreams 

of rolling clouds, beautiful vistas, and the true freedom 

of flight. His brief dream ends, however, as a swish pan 



39 

brings us from the clouds to a dead white bird lying on the 
ground. The camera then moves to the funeral, which quickly 
becomes a circus of multi-colored umbrellas. Brewster, of 
course, will suffer the same fate; after a brief flight, he 
too will plummet to the ground and lie there, encased in 
white. And as soon as he hits the ground, the circus will 
arrive. More than a mere interlude in the film, the dream 
sequence acts as a surprisingly subtle microcosm of the 
film. As such, it hints at Altman's increasing concern and 
skill with his films' structure. 

Even with these inventive, subtle details, Brewster 
remains an obvious and simple movie, a fantasy. Because 
it is a personal little fable, the individual viewer must 
decide for himself whether it successfully captures and 
holds his imagination. More universally demonstrable, how- 
ever, are the values that structure the fantasy. Since 
Brewster operates in an imaginary world created by Altman, 
his values can be seen in pure, discernible states. 

"The desire to fly has been ever-present in the mind 
of Man," the lecturer begins, at once establishing that 
Brewster's quest is primal and universal. But, Louise 
cautions Brewster, the ability to fly and to be free be- 
comes possible only after intensive training, discipline, 
and sacrifices. As an archetypal individual, Brewster is 
warned about sex and passion, which hinder discipline and 
obscure the vision of freedom. Sex causes people, Louise 
tells him, to rationalize their lives and to ultimately be- 
lieve what society tells them. 



40 

Brewster's temptation, of course, is Suzanne. (Hope 
seems quite happy without Brewster's active sexual parti- 
cipation and is, therefore, no real temptation.) Suzanne 
proves irresistible; to Brewster's surprise, sex with her 
feels good and does not appear to sap his strength or re- 
solve. Hurt because Louise has lied to him, Brewster tells 
Suzanne about his ability to fly. And although Louise's ad- 
vice has seemed typically unreasonable and maternally over- 
protective, she does know best. Before Brewster has even 
finished telling Suzanne about his plans to fly away, she 
is happily merchandising him into a mansion in Houston's 
most fashionable neighborhood. As soon as he tells her of 
his responsibility for the murders, Suzanne drops her pose 
of "feminine" stupidity and becomes a coy schemer. She 
quickly gets Brewster out of her house, reports him, wins 
back her old boyfriend, and transforms a case of premature 
ejaculation into a marriage proposal. In almost any other 
film, her reluctance to lie next to a confessed mass mur- 
derer would be understandable. In this movie, however, 
Brewster is the harmless hero; when Suzanne turns him in, 
she betrays him and the film's positive values. As such, 
she proves Louise's advice. Brewster's indulgence in sex 
does destroy him; a passionate woman does betray him. 

The climactic scene is at once heartbreaking and ex— 
hilirating. Louise, who has grasped the situation, has 
already left (but not before doing one final favor, mur- 
dering Weeks). Brewster knows he must fly. He puts on 



41 

his wings and, in full view of the Houston Police Depart- 
ment, triumphantly soars to the top of the Astrodome. As 
he rises, we remember the lecturer's initial warning, "It 
may someday be necessary to build enormous environmental 
enclosures to protect both Man and Birds. But if so, it 
is questionable whether Man will allow birds in. . . .or out, 
as the case may be." Although we hope for Brewster's es- 
cape, we know he cannot. As the lecturer screams that man 
will never equal the natural flight of birds, Brewster plum- 
mets to the ground. As soon as he hits the astroturf , Alt- 
man cuts to a tiny section of the Astrodome, which is filled 
with politely applauding spectators. The scoreboard lights 
up and the Greatest Show on Earth, a circus of sorts, pours 
into the arena. We realize that the circus is Brewster ' s 
costumed cast taking a curtain call; even the dead charac- 
ters are resurrected and take their bows. Only Brewster, 
the individual who has tried to be free, remains dead. His 
insistence on remaining dead reinforces his failure to be 
free. 

Although Altman has prepared us for Brewster's death, 
the movie might have supported a happy ending. Had the 
dome opened and Brewster flown out, he could have been a 
comtemporary Peter Pan. Even at the risk of sentimentality, 
we would have believed it. But Brewster does not break 
away; he fails. This inability to escape reveals how deeply 
Altman believes in man's inherent limitations. 



42 

Perhaps Brewster does not deserve to escape because he 
ignored Louise's advice; in any case, he was doomed from 
the start. Louise told him he must remain pure and dedi- 
cated, if he were to succeed; the professor told us at the 
beginning and end of the film that he was not going to get 
out of the dome; Brewster's own dream ended with the death 
of the white bird; most importantly, the freedom of flight 
was never even verified. Freedom is not only attainable, 
then, but may also be illusory. 

The refusal to let the individual exist in a state of 
freedom connects Brewster , which superficially seems so 
different, with Altman's other, more realistic films. Not 
only are the values the same; some of Brewster will be used 
in other Altman movies. Abraham Wrighfs priorities and 
speech about his money will be repeated by Marty Augustine 
in The Long Good-bye ; Shaft's slow motion death in water 
will reappear in McCabe and The ' Long Good-bye ; his repeated 
use of "Jesus Christ" will characterize Images ' Hugh's 
speech pattern; the climactic death by betrayal will resur- 
face in Thieves Like Us . But most importantly, all the 
films will concern themselves with the individual's inability 
to be free. 

Although Brewster is more successful than That Cold 
Day, which was a collection of techniques in search of a 
theme, and more original than MASH , which was an adolescent 
collection of stereotypes and slapstick comedy, it still 
does not have the tightened structure, totally integrated 



43 

design, and depth of Altman's later films. With his next 
film, McCabe and Mrs . Miller , Altman will gain that control, 
eliminate the ragged edges, and work with more subtlety. 
And although his movies will be better, his assurance, 
talent, and visibility will hamper his ability to make an- 
other personal movie like Brewster , which is both his and 
our loss. 



For a more detailed and socially oriented treatment 
of Daphne and Wright, see Roberta Rubenstein's excellent 
review of Brewster in the winter 1971 Film Quarterly . 

2 

More specifically. Shaft xs a parody of Bullit, the 

blue-eyed San Francisco detective played by Steve McQueen. 

3 .... 

Another nice touch to Brewster is its patriotic use 

of color. In addition to the allusions to the astronauts 
landing on the moon is the profusion of red, white, and 
blue. Almost everyone wears some combination of the colors, 
no one more spectacularly than Daphne, who dies in a red, 
white, and blue acrylic knit and Suzanne, who wears a 
white blouse, blue skirt, and red lipstick to snare Bernard. 
There are also mammoth red, white, and blue banners in 
Brewster's lair. Although the motif remains undeveloped, 
it is noticeable and amusing. 



CHAPTER 5 
McCABE AND MRS. MILLER 



McCabe and Mrs. Miller , says John Huston, is the great 
forgotten movie of our time. It is a serious and compre- 
hensive statement about a younger America, a tender love 
story, and a stunning photographic essay. Finally, McCabe 
is Altman's western. Like his other films that deal with 
a particular genre, McCabe does not just refine the western 
but carefully uses the genre's conventions to expose its 
false underlying assumptions. 

Until recently, the western was probably the film genre 
closest to people's hearts. One explanation of this appeal 
may be that the western directly and positively deals with 
the myths and legends surrounding America's development. 
These films told of simpler times when values were less am- 
biguous, roles more certain and secure. 

John Ford's Stagecoach is probably the best example 
of the genre. Of the many characters in the film, all are 
immediately identifiable. The whore with the heart of gold 
is there, as is the doctor who cares for people no matter 
how drunk he gets. The driver is, beneath his cowardly 
and comical exterior, solidly dependable; the serious and 
responsible demeanor of the sherrif disguises a perceptive 

44 



45 

and humane flexibility. Also stereot;^''pical are the gentle 
lady of breeding, the misguided but loyal Southern gentle- 
man, the meek and ineffectual liquor salesman, the prim 
and repressive society matrons, the hypocritical banker 
turned thief, and the evil and ruthless killers. And, of 
course, there is the hero, Ringo, played, not surprisingly, 
by John Wayne . 

Ringo is a living representation of moral goodness. 
He has the right dream of a simple, rural existence on his 
ranch, surrounded by his family and crops. He realizes, 
however, that his dreams may be postponed or shelved when 
they conflict with his civic and familial responsibilities, 
which he must accept. To maintain his self-respect and 
his moral superiority over his brother's murderers, for ex- 
ample, he must revenge the murder, even though it means 
facing the three killers by himself. His failure to stand 
up to them would be sanctioning the rule of the gun and 
terrorism as a way of life. Given the situation and Ringo' s 
personality, he has no real choice but to accept the re- 
sponsibility to act in a traditionally moral fashion. 

In addition to being moral, Ringo is physically strong 
and has unpretentious and accurate instincts. His strength 
is important because it gives him credibility and the 
ability to fight for his values. His instincts are help- 
ful because they enable him to see through the facades of 
false authorities and values and recognize true quality. 
Thus, he knows immediately that Dallas, despite any reputa- 
tion, is kind, generous, decent, and worthy of his love. 



46 

Ringo , then, is a man of superior moral and physical 
strength and of unerring instinct. He is not, however, 
the only admirable character; others in Stagecoach are 
"good." Doc, for instance, may be a drunk, but when needed, 
is able to sober himself up and successfully operate. The 
cavalry, who have been eluding the stagecoach for most of 
the film, miraculously appear at the last possible moment 
and avert a massacre. Even the sherrif is humane enough 
to realize that, despite Ringo 's legal problems, he is 
morally justified and thus allows Ringo and Dallas to ride 
off and live their kind of life. Despite societal roles 
and personal eccentricities, then, the "good" characters 
are solidly dependable and successful. 

The vindication of the morally good characters goes 
further than their receiving rewards. As in all truly be- 
nign worlds, the bad people are punished, often by the 
same good people. The banker gets caught with the stolen 
money and will be returned to the town, where the investors 
will try to punish him. The three murderers will not just 
die, but they will be killed by Ringo himself. Ringo ' s 
avenging of his brother's death and his subsequent reward 
is, in fact, typical of the western's values. Because of 
the physical roughness of the terrain and society, the good 
people must endure much testing. In the end, however, they 
will be rewarded, just as the evil ones will be destroyed 
or rehabilitated. For the movies, then, the West is a se- 
cure place where values and identities are clear cut and 
invigorating . 



47 

As shown in McCabe and Mrs. Miller , Altrtian' s West is 
much different. He simply does not see the pioneer romance 
or the thrill of the frontier. The people who settle in 
Presbyterian Church seem no different from the residents of 
any other American blue collar neighborhood. Growth is 
not a noble and inspiring process here, but is spurred by 
commerce and projected profits and is accompanied by its 
attendant hypocrisies, dehumanization, and racism. The 
West, Altman is saying, was not won but was merely an early 
example of suburban sprawl. 

Like countless other westerns, McCabe opens with the 
mysterious stranger riding into town. The stranger would 
like to give the impression of class; he carries his own 
linen tablecloth and silver whiskey flask and pays much 
attention to his sophisticated, if inappropriate, hat and 
coat. Even this pose, however, is enough for Presbyterian 
Church. The town's one bar-hotel-restaurant, Sheehan's, 
is overcrowded, unfinished, dirty, poorly lit, and uncom- 
fortable. It is peopled with unshaven, undistinguished 
white men, including a messy drunk, a self-conscious dandy 
and his slavish admirer, a faceless group of card players, 
and Sheehan, a physically repulsive and nose-picking small 
time entrepreneur. This motley and unromantic group of 
original settlers represents quite a change from the group 
in Stagecoach , who made a much greater and individualistic 
impact than McCabe ' s characters. 



48 

Although McCabe looks more like the hero than any of 
these others, he is still no John Wayne. Although he seems 
cool and self-assured and although Sheehan says he is the 
well-known gunfighter who killed Bill Roundtree, Sheehan 
also says that McCabe' s nickname is Pudgy. McCabe' s de- 
fensiveness and refusal to talk about his past and his in- 
sistence that he is a "businessman" give some believability 
to Sheehan 's story. The nickname Pudgy and McCabe' s ridi- 
culous aside to Sheehan, "if a frog had wings, he wouldn't 
bump his ass so much," indicate that McCabe ' s reputation and 
ability as a gunfighter are considerably exaggerated. 

At any rate, McCabe is a businessman of sorts, even if 
his business is pimping and gambling. Realizing that the 
town of men is a major and captive market, McCabe buys 
three prostitutes and three tents and then begins building 
a more permanent house for his business venture. Even be- 
fore the building is finished, however, the whores are stab- 
bing customers and giving McCabe trouble. 

Unlike Dallas who is getting run out of town, Mrs. 
Miller is seen arriving at Presbyterian Church. She imme- 
diately proves herself a more astute businessperson than 
McCabe. She tells the skeptical McCabe that he could make 
a great deal of money if he would only expand his vision. 
"You've got to spend money to make money," she tells him. 
Her plans involve "a proper sporting house with clean linen 
sheets and class girls." McCabe, thinking of the men of 
the town and of the expense of such a house's construction. 



49 

tells her that she does not know the men's tastes. "Once 
they get a taste of it," she answers, "they'll like it all 
right." Mrs. Miller convinces McCabe that he does not have 
the experience to run a decent whorehouse and prevails; 
they form a partnership that will bring an expensive, sophis- 
ticated business establishment to town. 

Another sign of encroaching civilization arrives with 
Mrs. Miller. Ida, a mail order bride, has come on the same 
train. Like many of the men, she is ordinary and relatively 
nondescript in appearance. Although her hair is frazzled 
like Mrs. Miller's, she is frail, frightened, and apologe- 
tic. Nonetheless, she represents respectability and the 
potential for a family and a middle class in Presbyterian 
Church. 

The whores and the Jeffersons constitute the next in- 
flux of growth and the next increment of civilization. The 
whores are cosmopolitan, lively, proud, and eager to enter 
into the town life. They are not degenerate or vulgar, 
but are decent, religious people accustomed to a relatively 
comfortable standard of living. Rather than sabotage the 
town's moral character, they complement its developing mid- 
dle class atmosphere of hard work and clean living. With 
the whores come the town's first black family, the Jeffer- 
sons. Immaculate and polite, they are the town's second 
most interesting looking couple (after, of course, McCabe 
and Mrs. Miller) and sound like the most educated. The 
Jeffersons, being black, add another ethnic group to the 
town's population and also another level to the class system. 



5 

With this arrival, the permanent population of the town 
is complete; everyone else who comes is temporary and tran- 
sient. First are Sears and Hollander, representatives of 
the conglomerate Harrison Shaunessy, who want to buy the 
businesses in Presbyterian Church. The stereotypical hypoc- 
risy of the banker and the comic ineffectiveness of the 
liquor salesman in Stagecoach have been changed, then, to 
one of a bland, rather petty organization man. Despite Har- 
rison Shaunessy' s low offers and tendency to capitalize on 
other's hard work and to avoid risks, there is one good 
reason to sell to them: "They'd as soon kill you," says 
Mrs. Miller, "than look at you." Because he is drunk and in- 
secure, however, McCabe fails to deal with them, thus con- 
juring up a different group of company representatives. 

Before they come, however, the cowboy wanders into 
town. Like Ringo , the cowboy is primarily a rural creature 
who comes to town to stock up on supplies from the general 
store and to have fun at McCabe 's whorehouse. He relies 
on Presbyterian Church as a city and a service center; he 
is yet another indication that the town is on its way to 
becoming a metropolitan area. Unlike Ringo, the cowboy, as 
we shall see, is no hero. 

The final group who ride into tovvni are the three hired 
killers who are to remove McCabe. Although these three are 
as dishonorable and ruthless as the three in Stagecoach, 
there is a major difference. McCabe -s killers are company 
agents who want to kill McCabe because he is an obstacle 



51 

to the company's plans for the area. Even though they are 
sanctioned by one of the largest companies in America, as 
hired killers, they are the least moral of all the charac- 
ters. Ironically, the completion of their mission will make 
consolidation of the town's resources possible and will 
facilitate real growth and progress. Its cost, unfortu- 
nately, will be intimidation, terrorism, and murder. 

In an effort to survive, McCabe goes to Bear Paw, still 
the major city in the area, in a futile search for someone 
to make a deal with. When he realizes no one is there, he 
seeks the sherrif. Instead, he finds a lawyer, an ex-Sena- 
tor, who is the film's most articulate, most civilized 
character. Rather than help McCabe, the lawyer sees an 
opportunity to boost his own reputation and political ca- 
reer. Thus, he inspires McCabe with talk of noble prin- 
ciples and heroic dreams and sends him back to Presbyterian 
Church and certain death. The lawyer, like the company, 
is the product of civilization, indifferent to another's 
individual's plea for help unless it can directly further 
his ov7n ends. Stagecoach's innate sense of community and 
justice has no place here. 

The final civilizing gesture occurs at the end of the 
movie. In the hunt for McCabe, the church is set on fire. 
Although the winter landscape mutes the sound of gunshots, 
the fire is seen and draws everyone but McCabe, the surviv- 
ing killer, Butler, and Mrs. Miller (who is in an opium den) 
into a joint effort to save the church. As McCabe lies 



52 

yards av^ay, freezing to death, the townspeople save the 
building, a hollow s;iTnbol that has never even been used. 
And while they celebrate its salvaging, McCabe dies. 

Altman's comment is clear; civilization is achieved 
at the expense of individualism and humanity. McCabe and 

Mrs. Miller , then, is a comprehensive indictment of the 

2 

winning of the West. From the beginning, this film states, 

there has been social, religious, and racial hypocrisy and 
abuses; from the beginning, the corporation has terrorized 
and oppressed the individual. There have never been any 
heroes or any romance, just people trying to cope as best 
they can with forces bigger and more dominant than them- 
selves . 

Equally important is the essential bankruptcy of the 
forms and institutions that appear so important to Tianerican 
society. According to McCabe , the idea of racial equality, 
the functions of the church and the social importance re- 
served for marriage, and the notion of the supremacy of the 
individual have always been lies. The belief in the forms 
may help keep people satisfied or ambitious, but will not 
help them transcend the basic conditions of life. 

The first fact of Altman' s West that is different from 
the mi^re traditional presentation is his presentation of 
racism. Sheehan's first conversation is full of racist 
overtones, "Turn over a rock and you'll find a Chink," 
Sheehan mutters. All they do is smoke opium, which is not 
tolerated in the white part of town. In addition to the 



53 

existence of a ghetto, there is also another type of segre- 
gation. In the mines, the dangerous and difficult work is 
done by the Chinese. This theme is reinforced later in the 
film in a callous speech of Butler's. In it, he argues for 
the introduction of a profitable new mining technique. Its 
only drawback is the certain death of m.any of the miners; 
but since they will be Chinks, the hazard seems of small 
importance. 

Mrs. Miller is the only character to violate the color 
line. First she brings in an Oriental whore, who is the 
source of much curiosity and crude jokes ("If her eyes are 
slanted....") and business. She seems, however, a token, 
acceptable only because she is under Mrs. Miller's auspices. 
More importantly, Mrs. Miller goes to the Chinese section 
to smoke her opium. She does not go for companionship or 
out of a belief in social justice, however, but to escape 
into, oblivion. 

The black people, the Jeffersons, are also illustra- 
tive of the segregated nature of early America. The Jef- 
fersons are astonishingly good looking, well-dressed, and 
well-mannered. More than any other characters except 
McCabe and Mrs. Miller, they hint at interesting pasts and 
potential development. Although they meet with polite 
acceptance and live in the white part of town, they never 
enter into its social fabric. No one makes an effort at 
winning their friendship. When Coyle is killed, they are 
by themselves and remain so; when the church burns, they 



54 

help save it but are not a part of the celebration. In- 
stead, they slink away, alone and unnoticed. Despite their 
obvious assets, the Jeffersons never really integrate into 
the town, functioning only in a business role and in emer- 
gencies . 

The myth of racial equality is not the only empty con- 
cept; another is the institution of organized religion. 
To deal with this issue, Altman uses one of the film's most 
interesting characters, the preacher. 

The preacher seems a little strange from the beginning. 
His eyes are beady; he shuffles; his presence makes the 
other characters uncomfortable. Ill at east among other 
humans, he only once is shown with dignity. In a long 
shot, the preacher is shown working on the church's steeple. 
Even in this shot, however, the dignity is derived from the 
beauty of the natural setting; when juxtaposed against his 
apparent indifference to people, his solitary efforts at 
building a structure loses their nobility. 

The preacher's character is definitely established by 
his actions in the scene where Coyle is struck on the head. 
Coyle is clearly in need of medical and spiritual help; as 
everyone rushes to Coyle' s aid, the preacher pulls his 
collar up and sneaks away unnoticed. Although he has sup- 
posedly dedicated his life to doing God's will and helping 
people, his only real dedication is to his unfinished, un- 
used building. 



55 

The following funeral scene is an amusing yet poignant 
counterpoint to the preacher's behavior. Armed with the 
knowledge of the preacher's conduct and Mrs. Miller's early- 
remark that "nine times out of ten a good whore with time 
on her hands will turn to religion," we see the choir, com- 
posed of the whores and the Jeffersons. Their tuneless 
screeching and religious fervor seem at first incongruous 
and humorous, but their basic decency and fundamental re- 
spect for life and death become moving. Although their 
faith significantly is not shared by the m.ore worldly Mc- 
Cabe, Mrs. Miller, or the dandy and although their vision 
is both misplaced and deluded, their essential goodness and 
hiimanity shine. 

In the film's final moments, however, the beauty of 
this scene turns on itself. The preacher's mania becomes 
more dangerous when he forces McCabe out of the church and 
into near certain death. Ironically, this action leads to 
the preacher's own death and to the burning of his build- 
ing. And when the citizens work together to save the 
structure and then celebrate their success as McCabe dies, 
they seem shallow and foolish and their victory seems hol- 
low and unimportant. 

Like organized religion, which reveres material goods 
rather than human life, the concept of marriage and social 
respectabi.lity is false. Ida comes to Presbyterian Church 
to marry a man she has never seen. Unlike Dallas and 
Ringo who meet and fall into the deepest, most romantic 



55 

The following funeral scene is an amusing yet poignant 
counterpoint to the preacher's behavior. Armed with the 
knowledge of the preacher's conduct and Mrs. Miller's early 
remark that "nine times out of ten a good whore with time 
on her hands will turn to religion," we see the choir, com- 
posed of the whores and the Jeffersons. Their tuneless 
screeching and religious fervor seem at first incongruous 
and humorous, but their basic decency and fundamental re- 
spect for life and death become moving. Although their 
faith significantly is not shared by the m.ore worldly Mc- 
Cabe, Mrs. Miller ^ or the dandy and although their vision 
is both misplaced and deluded, their essential goodness and 
humanity shine. 

In the film's final moments, however, the beauty of 
this scene turns on itself. The preacher's mania becomes 
more dangerous when he forces McCabe out of the church and 
into near certain death. Ironically, this action leads to 
the preacher's own death and to the burning of his build- 
ing. And when the citizens work together to save the 
structure and then celebrate their success as McCabe dies, 
they seem shallow and foolish and their victory seems hol- 
low and unimportant. 

Like organized religion, which reveres material goods 
rather than human life, the concept of marriage and social 
respectability is false. Ida comes to Presbyterian Church 
to marry a man she has never seen. Unlike Dallas and 
Ringo who meet and fall into the deepest, most romantic 



56 

type of love, Ida is ordered like a piece of merchandise. 
Love has nothing to do with Ida's marriage, which is a legal 
transaction and an economic arrangement that is somewhat 
meaninglessly sanctified by society. 

As Ida is walking with Coyle one night, a man asks if 
he has seen her at Mrs. Miller's. Coyle forgets that since 
their marriage is essentially a business transaction, Ida 
is no different from Mrs. Miller's whores. Also, Mrs. 
Miller's girls are respected members of the town. The re- 
mark, when considered reasonably, is not that offensive. 
Coyle, however, reacts blindly; now that Ida is his wife, 
he must defend any slur against her honor. He does so in 
the traditional manner - with his fists. In the fight, 
Coyle is pushed down, strikes his head on a rock and dies. 

Coyle ' s death is the first serious violent incident 
in the film and as such is its first documentation of the 
waste and foolishness of social violence. Like many violent 
occurrences, the fight happens spontaneously and has unfor- 
seen tragic consequences. Also like other violence, it is 
self-indulgent, shortsighted, and meaningless. The remark 
that triggers the fight is almost inoffensive and certainly 
not worth dying for, Coyle, however, reacts according to 
the best western tradition, a manly defense of his property. 
In his childish efforts to defend her (and ultimately his) 
•honor, he is killed and thus places Ida's survival, rather 
than her honor, in jeopardy. Once again, the empty form 
is pursued at the expense of human life. 



57 

In an ironic twist that makes Coyle's death doubly mean- 
ingless, Ida ends up at Mrs. Miller's. Because she has no 
other alternative, she must become a whore. Still, she is 
nervous about her new calling; she never really liked sex 
but did it because it was her duty. "Maybe I'm just small," 
she tells Mrs. Miller. 

Mrs. Miller tells Ida to relax and that soon she will 
learn to enjoy sex and "do just fine." She also explains 
that Ida's status has not changed. "You did it with Coyle 
to keep a roof over your head. Here you'll be doing the 
same thing, only get to keep a little (money) for yourself. 
It's more honest, to my mind." And she is right; within a 
few days, Ida is smiling and enjoying herself. Of all the 
whores, she is the sorriest to see the cowboy leave; she 
stands in the snow waving and calling after him longer than 
any of the others. She finds honor and fulfillment, then, 
not in a loveless marriage, but in Mrs. Miller's whorehouse. 
The false glorification of violence in American society 
and in the typical western is more brutally and devastatingly 
dealt with in the killing of the cowboy. Despite his menac- 
ing entrance into the film, he is a good-natured innocent 
without any violent tendencies. While he is enjoying him- 
self at the whorehouse, the three hired killers come into 
town. Unlike the easy-going cowboy, the killers enjoy hu- 
iiiiliating people. When the cowboy leaves Mrs. Miller's, he 
meets the youngest gunfighter, who is embarrassed because he 
■missed a bottle he was shooting at. To save face, the 



58 

gunfighter goads the cowboy into a gunfight. Claiming that 
he cannot hit anything and just carries his gun for show, 
the cowboy backs away. As he turns to leave, he listens 
to the gunfighter' s offer to inspect his gun; perhaps the 
gun, not the cowboy's aim, is at fault. As the cowboy 
stupidly reaches for the gun, the gunfighter draws his and 
shoots and kills the cowboy. 

As soon as the shot rings out, Altman shifts to slow 
motion to show the cowboy fall into the ice, bleed, and 
die. The shift in the film's pace is brutally and cruelly 
jarring. As Altman cuts from the dead cowboy to the re- 
pulsively smug boy/killer, we feel anger, hatred, waste, 
and powerlessness. We see the gunfighter as he really is - 
not a romanticized hero, an honorable man of courage, or 
even a misunderstood social problem, but a vicious murderer 
who preys on innocent, unaware, ordinary people. And be- 
cause the gunfighter kills coldly, whether for sport, money, 
or ego, he is able to terrorize the more decent people into 
submission. Because he makes all the rules, he holds all 
the cards. Unlike the traditional western, there is no 
necessary punishment or avenging of the gunfighter; he may 
or may not be killed himself, but nothing can happen to 
make his victim's death meaningful. Rather than being an 
object of adoration, then, the gunfighter and his violent 
code are treated with disgust and hatred. 

The three gunfighter s are not, it must be remembered, 
after McCabe and in town by accident; they are employees 



59 

of a major company on a business assignment. Too big, 
powerful, and anonymous to worry about conventional morality, 
Harrison Shaunessy routinely engages hired killers to get 
rid of difficult businessmen. That a corporation v7ould 
act this way this early adds a new dimension to violence 
in America. In fact, the corporation is seen here as the 
central guiding and omnipotent force in early America. 

The corporation, according to McCabe , has been with 
America from the very beginning. It waited and watched; as 
soon as the groundwork and initial efforts of an ambitious 
individual proved to be successful, the corporation moved 
in, assuming total control at any cost. Because of its 
size and power, the corporation was able to operate with 
impunity and ruthlessness , co-opting everyone and every- 
thing in its path. 

The corporation's power explains the faceless, small 
nature of the film's individuals. The corporation is so 
big that the individual must manage to make a life for him- 
self around or through it, almost always serving it as deal 
maker, hired killer, manager, clerk, construction worker, 
or supplier of goods and services to it and its employees. 
Rather than translate the idealistic superiority of the 
little people's niambers into realistic power, the indivi- 
duals acknowledge the corporation's strength by not ques- 
tioning its tactics or power. When the Company is not 
around, the individuals are decent, cooperative, and 
morally responsible. As soon as the Company is involved, 



6 

however, the individuals become frightened and servile par- 
ticipants in its games. 

This change can be seen in the townspeople's behavior. 
When they are involved, they are capable of instinctively 
good and generous behavior. T'Jhen Coyle is hit and hurt, 
for example, everyone but the preacher rushes to his aid. 
When Birdie has a birthday, everyone but McCabe shows up 
to wish her well. Most importantly, when the church catches 
fire, everyone is capable of working in harmony towards the 
common goal. And when the corporation moves in and Sheehan 
sells out, no one blames him or resents him for selling out 
to the mob. When McCabe, on the other hand, is drunkenly 
arrogant to the corporation and tempts its wrath, the towns- 
people do not respect his courage, but feel he is a fool. 
Later, when McCabe is humiliated by Butler, the townspeople 
do not try to ease McCabe' s humiliation. The dandy is 
openly contemptuous of him; the lawyer is condescending; 
the rest are made uneasy. Rather than involve themselves, 
they look away and mind their own business. 

Indeed their reaction is understandable. When the cow- 
boy is killed, the townspeople are forced to witness the 
murder. As in the scene with McCabe and Butler, no one 
comes to the cowboy's aid; no one makes a moral stand. If 
they had, they too probably would have been killed. Al- 
though the townspeople want to help, their desire to live 
is understandably stronger. Although each is resigned to 
hoping he is not the next victim, he cannot be blamed for 
not taking on the corporation by himself. 



61 

The perception that America is a corporate wasteland 
peopled by a sheepish mass is not new; for anyone living 
through the last decade, it seems almost taken for granted. 
What is new is Altman's insistence that America has always 
been this way, that the tales of the frontier pioneers who 
had control over their lives have been lies and distortions 
used to socialize us into more of the same. Unlike Stage - 
coach , the real enemies were never Indians or outlaws; the 
only Indian in McCabe is a chippy and outlaws are so non- 
existent that McCabe and Mrs. Miller keep all their money 
in portable boxes and heart-shaped tins. Not even storms 
and fire pose a real threat; through cooperative action, 
they are conquered. No, the only realy enemy is the Com- 
pany, which will lie, steal, and kill "as soon as look as 
you . " 

Because the villain is so pervasive and so omnipotent 
and because there are such a limited number of options open 
to the individual and because traditionally heroic action 
leads only to death and waste, there can be no traditional 
hero in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. But because McCabe does 
not have to be a hero, he can be a human being. Because 
he can be flawed and even somewhat ordinary, his story and 
his relationship with Mrs. Miller can be more realistic and 
more moving. 

When McCabe arrives in Presbyterian Church, he seems 
self-assured, sophisticated, and successful. Establishing 
himself as a businessman, his immediate plans for a gambling 



62 

casino and v/horehouse overshadow his obvious shortcomings 
as an operator and thrust him into the additional role of 
the tovm's leading citizen. Sheehan confirms this status 
when he tries to form a partnership that would prohibit any 
other establishment's opening without their approval and 
subsequent cut. McCabe turns Sheehan down, telling him 
that he has come "to get away from" partners, even though 
he does not mind deals. (In the course of the film, how- 
ever, he will profit from his partnership and die because 
of his failure to make the right deal.) "Sheehan," McCabe 
characteristically concludes, "if a frog had wings, he 
wouldn't bump his ass so much." 

Although their conversation is interrupted by one of 
McCabe ' s whores who is slashing a customer with a knife, 
much has been said. McCabe states that he does not like 
partners but is amenable to deals. He is soon, however, 
to make Mrs. Miller a partner, which is wise because he is 
generally incapable of running a business. And ultimately 
he will be killed because he does not make a deal or even 
understand the deal making process. Rather than act like 
a businessman, he treats Sears and Hollander rudely. 

Sheehan is right when he tells McCabe that a business- 
man has to know how to make deals. He is also right in 
understanding that there is a safety in niombers. McCabe, 
however, never really understands the power of the corpora- 
tion; when he lets his drunkeness and personal problems- 
interfere with his business conduct, he ruins himself. 



63 

McCabe's frog joke is the first concrete indication that 
he relies on instinct rather than intelligence. He ob- 
viously meant the joke to be a witty, incisive remark that 
would make him look intelligent and urbane. Instead of 
making him look smart, however, it reveals his stupidity. 

McCabe's pretensions are evident during his first meet- 
ing with Mrs. Miller. Ill at east because of her self-con- 
fidence and as yet unannounced reason for approaching him, 
McCabe takes her to Sheehan ' s and clumsily buys everyone 
there drinks. After this transparent attempt to impress 
her, he dramatically drinks his usual raw egg in front of 
her. To let him know that she sees through his actions and 
that they are unnecessary, she playfully pulls him close 
and whispers, "If you want to make like such a fancy dude, 
you ought to wear something besides that cheap Jockery 
Club perfume. " 

With one sentence, she deflates his airs and poses; 
never again can we think of McCabe as suave or sophisti- 
cated. Mrs. Miller, then, exposes his image of a cool, shrewd, 
and fast thinking businessman. His inexperience, lack of 
imagination and foresight, and reluctance to take chances 
are revealed by his inability to answer even one of Mrs. 
Miller's many questions and by his hesitation at becoming 
her partner. In the end, however, Mrs. Miller's confident 
and intimidating recitation of the obvious advantages to 
the partnership and her demand for an immediate answer 
railroad McCabe into acceptance. But even though the 



64 

partnership is financially and personally successful, McCabe 
never loses his initial reservations about the arrangement. 

These reservations stem from McCabe 's concern for hxs 
reputation. Extremely insecure, he places an inordinate 
amount of im.portance on what others think of him. As such, 
he feels the need for others to regard him as sophisticated, 
successful, and urbane. Mrs. Miller, however, not only 
sees through his facade, but also understands his need for 
one. But because she knows so much about him, she is 
threatening to him. 

An even greater concern for McCabe is his partnership 
with a woman. He cannot escape the feeling that his part- 
nership with a woman involves a compromise of his mascu- 
linity, a public admission of insufficiency, and a result- 
ing loss of respect from her and the community. He is also 
unable to reconcile her business and professional acumen 
as a whore with their personal relationship as lovers and 
remains continually frustrated over the two roles. 

Because McCabe is so acutely concerned with the way 
others judge him, there is a large gap between the public 
and private McCabe. He has hidden his inner thoughts and 
kept them non-verbal for so long, he has forgotten how to 
■; articulate them. "I've got poetry in me," he tells him- 
self, clearly wishing he could release it to Mrs. Miller. 

Actually, McCabe' s worries about revealing himself are 
unnecessary. Although his dreams are not great, they are 
decent wishes for an honorable reputation, a successful 



65 



business, and an ability to provide for his woman. Al- 
though not an intellectual or even particularly intelli- 
gent, he is sensitive and alive. After all, he was the 
one to develop or at least recognize the opportunities in 
the town and was able to get the men to work for him. More 
importantly, he is never cruel or jaded, but innocent and 
charming. These private virtues excuse the obnoxious ele- 
ments of his public personality, notably his incompetence 
and delusions of sophistication and resulting need to con- 
stantly prove himself. Had McCabe been less concerned with 
trying to seem like a successful businessman and more con- 
cerned with being John McCabe, he would have been happier 
and more successful. He also may have lived longer. 

Instead, of course, McCabe tries to maintain his pub- 
lic image, even though his attempts lead to increasingly 
greater frustrations. McCabe releases these frustrations 
through his drunken binges. Unfortunately, Sears and Hol- 
lander arrive during one of these binges. Driven into 
drinking because of his feelings of inadequacy, McCabe 
overcompensates by trying to impress the two agents with 
his women, whiskey, and wit. His patronizing behavior in- 
sults the already irritable Hollander, who feels the corpora- 
tion mistreated him by sending him on such a simple and re- 
mots assignment. "That man is an ass," he tells the more 
patient Sears, "I'm going back." As soon as Hollander 
leaves, he triggers the film's remaining events. Once 
started, the events cannot be stopped. Thus, McCabe 's 



66 

inability to be himself and his failure to control his pub- 
lic personality drive away the people he cannot afford to 
alienate. 

When Sears and Hollander leave and the deal falls 
through, Mrs, Miller begs him to sneak out of town. Not 
only does McCabe refuse to consider her suggestions, but 
he gets offended by it. "Go into business with a woman," 
he mutters, "and you can't expect her to have reason to 
respect you." Thinking he will not sneak away because the 
townspeople will think him cowardly, Mrs. Miller loses her 
patience. "What are these people to you?" she yells, "Why 
do you care what they think?" 

McCabe 's refusal to run away involves more, however, 
than simple pride. After all, McCabe suffered humiliation 
in his dealings with Sears and Hollander and then was will- 
ing to grovel to Butler in front of his former employees, 
friends, and customers. He is also willing to go on a 
desperate search for anyone who can make a deal with him. 
Something in McCabe, however, will not let him run away 
completely, leaving his property and efforts and dreams 
to the jackals. 

McCabe may not be taken in my the lawyer's high prin- 
ciples and may be using them in an attempt to impress Mrs. 
Miller and to inflate his own importance, but he does be- 
lieve that he should "stick his hand in the fire and find 
out What he's made of." He is no longer thinking about 
other people's opinions, but is acting out of his beliefs 



67 

and for the maintenance of his self-respect. Although he 
is like Coyle because he is acting out of a misguided, fu- 
tile, and wasteful code, he has finally reconciled his 
public and private selves. And perhaps because he believes 
in what he is doing, he is able to move purposely and re- 
sourcefully for the first time - even though he is killed, 
he does elude the killers for a surprisingly long period, 
manages to kill all three, and almost escapes. Although 
his death is still a waste, he does achieve a dignity of 

^ 3 
sorts . 

While McCabe may put on airs of sophistication, Mrs. 
Miller is genuinely sophisticated. She is also witty and 
intelligent. When she tells McCabe that his cologne is 
cheap, she is not being malicious. Instead, her eyes and 
voice sparkle; she is both teasing him and telling him 
that she is different and that he does not need those airs 
with her. Despite her aggressiveness, she is not emasculat- 
ing; even though she devours four eggs and a plate of stew, 
she never becomes slovenly or gross like the woman in the 
famous eating scene from Tom Jones . Totally self-confident, 
she is intriguing, sexy, independent, and fascinating. 

Because Mrs. Miller has so much self-respect and con- 
fidence, she feels no shame in her profession. Unlike Mc- 
Cabe, she is an excellent business]^^'." Also unlike McCabe, 
she does not need to hide behind the title "businessman." 
•=I'm a whore," she tells McCabe. Not only is she a whore; 
she is one of the best. While the other women charge one 



68 



and a half dollars, Mrs. Miller charges five dollars for 
her services. .And everyone, including McCabe, must pay. 

The first time we see McCabe in bed with Mrs. Miller 
is the first time their relationship is clarified. Mc- 
Cabe ' s repeated solitary complaints and frustrations with 

Mrs. Miller ("Money and pain ") and her impatience and 

disappointment over his inability to manage his affairs are 
intense enough to suggest a deeper personal relationship 
than a simple business partnership. Also, the delicacy 
with which Birdie tells McCabe that he cannot talk to Mrs. 
Miller because she has "company" and his uncomfortable, em- 
barrassed response hint at his personal involvement. Thus, 
when the two are shown in bed, we are not really surprised. 
What is surprising, however, is that Mrs. Miller stops 
to remind him that he has not paid. Smiling, McCabe gets 
out of bed and puts his money in the box. But Mrs. Miller 
shows that he is no ordinary customer; she curls up under 
the covers and pulls the blanket up over her nose. All we 
see is her eyes, excited, radiantly alive, and happy. Be- 
fore McCabe came in, she had smoked some opium; for the first 
time, the drug enhances her mood of pleasure and activity 
rather than dragging her into oblivion. Her response to 
McCabe and his presence is not mercenary, then, but loving. 

Mrs. Miller's charging McCabe is consistent and crucial 
to her character. As she says, she asks nothing from no 
one. And she knows she cannot be a whore forever; someday 
she hopes to run a proper boarding house in San Francisco. 



69 

Living alone in the present and preparing for the future 
takes money. Since she is independent, she has to be con- 
cerned with her own welfare. The price of independence, 
after all, is the responsibility of caring for oneself. 
More importantly, Mrs, Miller, unlike McCabe , has enough 
self-respect and awareness to separate her business and 
professional lives. In her case, this means separating 
love from sex. If McCabe and Mrs, Miller are in love, all 
McCabe can expect is her love. This love cannot include 
her abandonment of her welfare for his pleasure. To remain 
independent and to keep her self-respect and equality in 
their relationship, she cannot give him free use of her 
body. Until both decide and desire that he should be re- 
sponsible for her, she must remain responsible to herself. 
She must, then, charge McCabe or enter into a one-sided, 
unequal relationship. 

When McCabe returns from Bear Paw without the deal, 
Mrs. Miller reveals the depth of her self -awareness . She 
realizes that the lawyer's principles are empty and that 
McCabe ' s death is inevitable. She leaves the stove (the 
only time in the film that she performs a domestic duty) , 
turns her back, and begins to cry. McCabe looks relieved; 
at last she is conforming to a feminine role. Soothingly, 
masculinely, McCabe falls into his role, "There, there 
now, little lady, don't you cry." Mrs. Miller's reaction 
is explosive and immediate - "Don't give me any of that 
little lady shit!" 



70 

She stops crying and pleads with him to leave town. 
When she sees that McCabe will not be swayed, she composes 
herself and closes the discussion with an abrupt "eat your 
meal." She knows that everything has been said; she com- 
passionately drops the subject without any whining, com- 
plaining, or self-pity. She never even reminds him that 
she told him so. 

Immediately preceding their final scene together, Mc- 
Cabe admits to himself that he hates the thought of other 
men sleeping with Mrs. Miller; if only, he wishes, she 
could be tender and free just once. McCabe does not under- 
stand Mrs. Miller and does not realize she hears the poetry 
he has locked inside himself. Instead, he thinks she is 
"freezing his soul." When he finally comes to her for what 
they both know is their last night, he tries to verbalize 
his feelings but breaks down. Rather than have him be 
further embarrassed, Mrs. Miller tells him that there is 
no need to say anything else, that she knows and feels the 
same needs. She pulls him to bed without a glimpse or 
possibly even a thought of the money box. She is tender, 
giving, and human.. Regardless of her future or welfare or 
situation, she and McCabe have an intense moment of true 
oneness . 

Before McCabe wakes up, Mrs. Miller sneaks off to the 
opium den. Both know what is to happen that morning; her 
presence there would be both uncomfortable and painful. 
Soon thereafter, McCabe will lie alone in the snow freezing 



71 



to death; Mrs. Miller's soul will be temporarily frozen 
in the opium den's oblivion. It is a depressing ending 
for we are forced to watch the destruction of two people 
whom we have learned to care very much for. 

Although there is no way to see McCabe's ending as a 
happy one, there are elements of optimism, hope, and beauty 
in the film. If at the end McCabe and Mrs. Miller have to 
face their fates alone, they are no different than any of 
us. And before that end, they are able to build a rela- 
tionship based upon mutual respect and care. Neither is 
forced to compromise a belief or stance; each recognizes 
the other as an individual with feelings and integrity. 
Although they do not have a very long relationship, it is 
intense and beautiful, punctuated with moments of happiness 
and total commitment. Because they attain these moments, 
they do create that "momentary stay against confusion" ; 
they really live. And that is a major accomplishment. 

Because of the leisurely pace, overlapping dialogue, 
and large number of characters, McCabe appears to be a 
loosely structured, dissonant film. The appearance is, 
however, deceptive; the movie is tightly controlled, direct, 
and coherent. 

There are many characters in McCabe : the original 
townspeople, the whores, the Company men, the cowboy, the 
la-.>A-er, the killers, McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Not every 
character is developed, however; the facelessness of many 
preclude the necessity for any development. The others 



72 

are defined primarily in terms of their occupation as poli- 
tician, gunfighter, company lackey. Only the dandy and 
his slavish admirer do not seem related to the rest of the 
film; their feud over the moustache is funny but peripheral 
and independent from the rest of the film. Every other 
character, however, exists primarily to further the film's 
central characters and theme. McCabe's first three whores, 
for example, exist primarily to illustrate his incompetence 
and limited vision, especially when contrasted with Mrs. 
Miller's ladies. The black couple comment on the racist 
nature of early America; the lawyer is a caricature that 
closes another avenue of individual control and exposes as 
a myth the idea of an unbiased and helpful legal system in 
America. These characters are all visually interesting 
but are not allowed to exist independently. Instead, they 
all are used to serve a specific function. 

This is especially apparent in the cases of the 
preacher and of Ida. The preacher's initial appearance in 
the film is arresting and provocative; his refusal to help 
Coyle and his inching away from the accident is an unmis- 
takable indictment of religious hypocrisy. He is also 
used as the agent of McCabe's destruction; as such, he be- 
comes a major force in the development of the plot. As 
;.soon as he assumes this important function, the function 
■becomes more important than the character. The statement 
Altman is making with the preacher becomes more straight- 
forward and more direct. Its content does not really change 



73 

but the preacher as a character becomes dwarfed by the 
point. In addition to diminishing the preacher as a charac- 
ter, the change destroys the subtlety and diffuseness the 
preacher brings to the earlier part of the film. 

Ida suffers the same treatment. Unusual and haunting, 
Ida initially shies away from the camera and exudes fear, 
timidity, tension. When Coyle dies and leaves her without 
any means of support and without anyplace to go, her logical 
alternative is Mrs. Miller's. One or two shots, culminat- 
ing in her waving good-bye to the cowboy, would have ex- 
plained her adjustment. Rather than do that, however, 
Altiaan has Mrs. Miller calm her down and explain how whoring 
is as, if not more, honest as marriage. Through this con- 
versation, Altman explicitly justifies Mrs. Miller and the 
other whores. Since throughout the film they have acted 
with decency and pride, their honesty need not be questioned. 
When Mrs. Miller talks about her position, her speech seems 
unnecessary. Also, because of this conversation, Ida be- 
comes more than a character; her transformation from a 
scared girl to a mature, sensual woman becomes more than a 
happy change. Instead, Ida is turned into a before/after 
advertisement and proof of Mrs. Miller's argument. Al- 
though she becomes a more important figure in the film, she 
does so not because of her individuality but because she 
is a connection and key to the larger message. 

In McCabe , Altman does not seem ready to let his minor 
characters stand alone as individual characters. He is 



74 

expecting less of the audience than he later will; he seems 
here careful to make every connection explicit, to tie 
every loose end, to make every detail direct and functional. 
Because he does this and also because of the socio-political 
nature of his message, McCabe remains Altman ' s clearest ex- 
planation of his social and political philosophy. 

The Altman world is a hostile one whose forces are 
distant, omnipotent, and indifferent to the individual. 
The institutions of government, religion, and family that 
normally are thought to buffer the harsh and invisible 
realities of life are empty forms that are used by the real 
powers, the corporations. The individual's allegiance to 
these archaic institutions foster a false sense of security 
and priorities that themselves further, stabilize, and per- 
petuate the status quo. 

Although we are destined to be born, live, and die 
alone in such a bleak environment, we also have the poten- 
tial to create true, if temporary, beauty, meaning, and 
happiness. Since our power as individuals is limited by 
the composition of the world, Altman says, we are freed 
from any compulsion to act like heroes and thus are freed 
to be people. So although we are unable to create per- 
manence and although we live in a world of false institu- 
tions and hostile parameters and although we are destined 
to have unhappy endings, we do have continual opportunities 
to create spontaneous, intense, and beautiful experiences, 
regardless of how long they last. 



75 

McCabe and Mrs. Miller can be thought of as Altman's 
transitional movie. As in the traditional film, there are 
few loose ends. The characters are purely functional; the 
values are explicitly explained; the identifications unam- 
biguous. Although there is the potential for subtleties, 
Altman loses confidence in them and, by the end of the film 
directly explains them. The music works in the same way; 
the movie is a gentle, quiet one that develops its own 
moods. Leonard Cohen's dirge-like and distractingly beauti- 
ful ballads are obtrusively heavy. Rather than complement 
or help the moods, they push and determine the moods. 
Altman's following films, at least until Nashville , will 
avoid being so pointed and will require more from the in- 
dividual viewer. 

McCabe is also related to many of the other Altman 
movies in its thematic preoccupation with roles. Like 
Marlowe, Charley, Bill, and the MASH and Nashville gangs, 
McCabe is playing a role. This time, the role is a business- 
man. McCabe, however, never successfully throws himself 
into the role. Because he mixes his public persona and 
his private feelings and needs, he is never fully convinc- 
ing in or understanding of the role. This leaves him un- 
able to anticipate the role's demands. Thus, he does not 
understand the importance of the deal and acts improperly; 
he not only fails to make the deal, but also offends the 
principals. Because he does not know the script, then, he 
sets in motion the events leading to his own destruction. 



76 



While the other Altman characters define themselves so 
totally in terms of their roles that we never really know 
them beyond their roles, McCabe does not play his well 
enough and thus dies. 

McCabe is like the later films in its visual beauty 
and its strong emotional impact. This is the first of his 
films that are like paintings; it is a film that can be 

watched simply as a procession of beautiful colors and 

4 
visual images. The film's beauty, however, is not func- 
tional since it does not really complement the theme or 
the story. Instead, McCabe uses its beauty as its own 
justification for its existence. After all, McCabe is a 
moving picture and thus can be looked at simply as a series 
of moving photographs. There is no reason, then, not to 
have those pictures be as beautiful as possible. 

McCabe and Mrs. Miller , then, is a comprehensive socio- 
political statement about a younger but not very different 
America, a beautiful and tender love story, and a stunning 
visual experience. It also is Altman' s last explicit and 
thus traditional movie; those that are to follow will be 
much looser and more open-ended. But since all the movies 
he will make will return to McCabe ' s core values, McCabe 
can be thought of as Airman's key movie, his cinematic home, 



77 



Notes 

■'' Huston made this statement on the December 9, 1975 
Tomorrow Show on ABC. 

^ McCabe is not the first, but only one of a number 
of revisionist westerns, including Johnny Guitar , Little 
Big Man, Bad Company , and Doc . In my opinion, McCabe 
is the most sustained and most successful. 

- In "Robert Altman's Anti-Western," (Journal of Popu- 
lar Film , Fall, 1972) , Gary Engle concentrates on the lack 
of~heroism in McCabe 's final acts. I recommend the article, 
which focuses on the social comment McCabe makes. 

^ Altman has made several statements about wanting to 
make a movie like a painting, but I cannot locate them. I 
think the remark was in an interview in Genesis , in Boston's 
The Real Paper , and in Films and Filming . Unfortunately, 
I cannot find the quote anywhere and thus cannot present 
it with the significance and authenticity it deserves. He 
also alludes to the remark and concept in the July 17, 1975 
Rolling Stone article, "Bob Altman's Nashville," by Chris 
Hodenf ield. 



CHAPTER 6 

IMAGES 



Images opened in 1972 to almost unanimously poor re- 
views and dismal box office grosses in its first few en- 
gagements. The results of its first runs were so disap- 
pointing, in fact, that the film was withdrawn and never 
received national distribution. This is unfortunate because 
Images is one of Altman's most interesting movies. 

Like the other Altman films, Images reworks a familiar 
film genre. This time Altman is working with the subjective 
suspense thriller. In these films, we see the movie di- 
rectly through one of the character's eyes. In some movies, 
like the 1947 Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall Dark Passage , 
the subjective viewpoint is introduced as a gimmick; we 
literally must see through Bogart's eyes and wait until a 
mirror or a pane of glass reflects the character's physi- 
cal identity. Because of its obvious and mannered look, 
this type of subjective approach quickly becomes annoying; 
when it is dropped after about twenty minutes in Dark 
Passage , the movie becomes easier to watch and more effec- 
tive. There is another, less obvious way to incorporate a 
subjective point of view into a movie. A successful exam- 
ple of the more subtle subjective film is Roman Polanski's 

Repulsion . 

78 



79 



In Repulsion f Polanski deals with the breakdown of a 
manicurist named Carol. Rather than give the audience an 
objective, nonthreatening vantage point, Polanski forces 
the audience to see the world through Carol's distorted 
eyes. Thus, the rooms of her apartment become increasingly 
elongated, twisted, blurred, and surreal; her fantasies be- 
come increasingly strong and vivid enough to intertwine 
themselves with reality; her outside and inside worlds coa- 
lesce and become terrifying and dangerous. 

Throughout the film, as the camera slowly becomes 
Carol's eyes, we in the audience are denied any substantial 
explanation of the reasons behind Carol's problems. There 
are some hints: the photograph of her family, the reli- 
gious references, her relationship with her sister. The 
clues never assume any definitive significance because the 
information that would make sense of them is withheld. 
This lack of information guarantees the audience's in- 
ability to understand the reasons behind Carol's breakdown 
and our resulting inability to objectify her experience. 

Polanski deliberately denies us the information. By 
not being able to understand Carol's behavior intellectually, 
the audience's tendency to treat her clinically as a case 
study of madness is hindered. Without this more distant 
vantage point, we are forced to look at Carol on a less 
analytical, more emotional level. Because the details and 
objectivity that differentiate us from Carol are minimized, 
we are thrust into her experience. Rather than watch 



80 

Carol's madness, we are encouraged to feel and experience 
it. 

Polanski achieves this emotional involvement by care- 
fully structuring the film. The first part of the movie 
moves slowly; Carol goes about her daily routines. There 
are, however, many hints of her impending breakdown. She 
moves about in a daze, twitches her nose, is repelled and 
fascinated by the noise of her sister's lovemaking and by 
any male intrusion into her life (Colin' s kiss and Michael, 
her sister's lover's toothbrush), and her inability to con- 
centrate at work. This part of the movie is shot objec- 
tively; although we do not understand why Carol is getting 
more disoriented and distracted, we still are watching her 
from a rational, somewhat removed position. 

Polanski begins to change this with the mirror scene. 
As Carol turns around, she imagines a man in the corner of 
her mirror. His momentary appearance in the mirror is as 
startling, disorienting, and frightening to us as it is to 
Carol; it is not an hallucination of madness, after all, 
but an ordinary fantasy that many of us have had. This is 
the first time the audience has been manipulated into hav- 
ing the same emotional response as Carol's. The transition 
into her point of view continues until Colin bangs the door 
of Carol's apartment down. The only sympathetic character 
in the film, he seems genuinely attracted to and concerned 
about Carol. When he comes to her apartment, however, we 
see him through Carol's eye, the hole in the door that 



81 

distorts his face. He, like the audience, barges into 
Carol's world; .when he breaks down the door and enters her 
apartment, he enters her jurisdiction. And since he is 
threatening to her, Carol brutally kills him with all the 
love/hatred she has. From then on, the camera does not 
leave the apartment or Carol's point of view. 

After she kills Colin and, later, the landlord, Carol's 
breakdown intensifies; the cracked walls crack even louder 
and more severely and become more curved and elongated. 
They also get softer and more aggressive; hands reach out 
of them and try to grab Carol. The apartment becomes darker, 
gloomier, more shadow-filled. There are no objective shots 
and no relief; the audience is forced to see the world 
through Carol's eyes and, at least to some extent, is 
forced to undergo her experience. 

For all Repulsion's subjectivity, however, it is an 
unambiguous movie. Because so much time is spent with 
Carol at the initial stages of her breakdown, the audience 
gets to know her environment and her situation. The more 
subjective part of the film can thus be identified and at 
least minimally analyzed. Because we have seen the cracked 
walls and the dimensions of the apartment in the objective 
part of the film, we know that the more startling cracks, 
the twisted walls are imaginary ramifications of the objec- 
tive world. Since we are able to make this judgment, we 
also can unambiguously identify the men in her bed and the 
hands in the walls as figments of her imagination. This 



82 

lack of ambiguity gives us at least some understanding and 
intellectual distance and thus undercuts our disorienta- 
tion. 

In the film's last scene, the subjectivity is dropped 
altogether. Carol's sister and Michael return from their 
holiday, find the two bodies and Carol, who is catatonic 
and under the bed. Michael picks Carol up and carries her 
past the crowd in the apartment building and the audience 
into the street. The camera follows them out and then re- 
turns to the room, which is disordered but restored to its 
original dimensions. Slowly the camera pans to the photo- 
graph of the family and zooms in to Carol's eye, separating 
and objectifying the audience and reestablishing the dis- 
tance between character and audience. The movie and the 
experience over, Polanski eases us back into our own worlds. 

Images does not give us this security of an objective 
framework. Operating without any framing devices. Images 
maintains its subjectivity throughout the entire film and 
thus demands a more active and more flexible audience. 
From beginning to end, Images thrusts us into a schizo- 
phrenic experience; not once does it compromise its struc- 
tural design of subjective point of view and audience dis- 
orientation. 

Schizophrenia, popularly thought of as the phenomenon 
of a split personality (a notion popularized by countless 
films and television programs) , is more correctly defined 
as a split from reality. As Images begins, Kathryn, a 



83 



children's book author, has already started to break away 
from objective -reality . There have been three men in her 
life. Rene was the first, a lover who was killed three 
years ago. Because she put him on a plane that crashed 
and because she "miscarried" his child, she has never been 
able to rid herself of that relationship's guilt. The se- 
cond is Marcel, a promiscuous artist who lives near her 
country home. She slept with him once the previous year 
and still is both tantilized and repulsed by their brief 
sexual encounter. The third man is her current husband, 
Hugh. An ineffective, insensitive person, Hugh has none 
of the sexuality of the two others but does offer her the 
stability and security of a "good" marriage. 

Kathryn's chief problem we quickly discover , is that 
she cannot keep the people in her life straight. In the 
middle of a kiss or a sentence, Hugh will become Rene who 
will soon turn back into Hugh. When Hugh leaves the room 
to get the quail, for example, Rene appears to talk, tease, 
and abuse her. When she hits him, Rene bleeds all over 
the carpet, even though Hugh does not notice the blood when 
he comes back inside, possibly because his finger is bleed- 
ing all over the carpet too. Kathryn is then forced to 
deal with an imaginary Marcel who makes passes at her even 
when the real Marcel is in the next room talking to his 
daughter, Susannah. Then Kathryn is drawn into a strange 
and special relationship with the twelve-year-old Susannah, 
who looks mysteriously like Kathryn. Finally, there is 



84 

Kathryn's alter-ego, a woman who looks just like Kathryn 
and who Kathryn often sees standing in the distance watch- 
ing and, perhaps, waiting. 

In addition to making the country estate quite crowded, 
the presence and rapid interchanging of personalities are 
confusing and upsetting to Kathryn. Even more frightening 
are the ensuing events. Kathryn stops fighting Rene's and 
Marcel's advances and indulges in a particularly satisfying 
lovemaking session. She is, however, unable to tell which, 
if any, man was her partner. 

Terrified, she confronts Rene. Realizing he must be 
dead because she saw him get on the plane, she asks him 
why he cannot be a "good ghost and stay dead." He then 
tells her that he is a product of her imagination who can 
be exorcized by a ritual act of murder. If, he tells her, 
she herself kills him, he can no longer bother her. With 
this advice, Rene hands her a loaded shotgun, which she 
uses. His advice apparently works, for he does not trouble 
her again - even if his bloody body does lie on the floor 
for the rest of the film. No one else notices the body 
although they do hear the gunshot and see the still camera 
of Hugh's that the blast has destroyed. 

If she can kill Rene, she reasons, she can also kill 
■Li)e imaginary Marcel. During her first attempted murder 
of Marcel, however, Hugh interrupts her. She then waits 
until Hugh is called out of town, makes sure the real Marcel 
is occupied with a woman from town, and calmly hacks the 



85 

imaginary Marcel to death. The next day, Susannah comes 
without her father; Kathryn has some nervous moments over 
whether she killed the right Marcel. But the real Marcel, 
she discovers when she takes Susannah home, is very much 
alive. Relieved, she turns the car around and starts home. 
On the ride back, she sees her alter-ego begging her for a 
ride. Ignoring her, Kathryn speeds home, only to be un- 
nerved by the two bloody corpses and empty house. Deciding 
to join Hugh in London, she gets back into her car and is 
again stopped by her alter-ego, who begs for help and pro- 
fesses love for Kathryn. Suddenly Kathryn realizes that 
she can kill the alter-ego as easily and finally as she 
has Rene and Marcel and runs her off the cliff. With all 
her ghosts laid to rest, she drives to her London apart- 
ment and finds an already steamy bathroom. She gets into 
the shower and waits for Hugh. When the door opens, how- 
ever, it is not Hugh, but her alter-ego, who is smugly 
laughing. Confused, Kathryn 's mind is thrown back to the 
cliff. At the bottom of the cliff lies a bloody, very 
dead Hugh. 

Kathryn is suffering, then, from schizophrenia because 
she is unable to differentiate between the real world and 
her imaginary one. The inability to differentiate forces 
her to act in a private world that is a unique combination 
of actual and illusory realities. Denied the benefits of 
a constant, objective reality, she is a disoriented kaliedo- 
scope of moods: bewildered, confident, frustrated, des- 
perate, sensual, frightened, rational, irrational. 



86 

To communicate her experience, Altman has designed a 
film so harrowing and so disorienting that we are immedi- 
ately thrust into Kathryn's world. Unlike Carol in Repul- 
sion, we do not see Kathryn in her early, slower stages of 
her breakdown. The first time we see Hugh, he turns into 
Rene; fifteen m.inutes into the film, Kathryn and her alter- 
ego become inexplicably intertwined. Without any previous 
information, we are expected to handle characters and plot 
shifts that we are not equippped to deal with. Like 
Kathryn, we are confused and frustrated; denied even the 
slender emotional distance Polanski allowed, we have no 
more idea which character is who or what really happened 
than Kathryn does . 

The deeper we become involved, the more confusing and 
ambiguous the film becomes. When Kathryn is driving to 
Green Cove that first day, for exampJe, she gets out of 
the car and stands on a hill to catch the first glimpse of 
her house. As she watches, to her horror, she sees her 
car drive up to the house and sees herself get out of it, 
look toward the hill she is standing on, and then go into 
the house. Then there is a shift to the Kathryn inside 
the house, who can see the Kathryn on the cliff who is 
still watching. This happens several more times - al- 
though Kathryn's relationship with her alter-ego becomes 
more ambivalent as her alter-ego becomes more aggressive, 
we can never really know which Kathryn was the one we met 
first. Any effort to untangle the two Kathryns leads to 



87 

an insolvable, frustrating maze that further disorients 
the audience. This disorientation becomes a mirror of 
Kathryn's mental state; we feel with her rather than in- 
tellectually understand her position. 

Other insolvable puzzles and intentional ambiguities 
abound. Regardless of how many times the scene with Hugh, 
Marcel, Kathryn, and Susannah talking after dinner is 
watched, the tracing of who is laughing and kissing Kathryn 
and who is sleeping is impossible. Also untraceable are 
the characters and events of the love scene. Was it mas- 
turbatory and illusory or real? Was it one of her ground- 
less fantasies or was it Hugh or Marcel? Like Kathryn her- 
self, we have no way of knowing; also like her, we want, 
even need, to know. Because we cannot, our own feelings 
of frustration, dislocation, and confusion are further in- 
tensified. 

Probably the film's major ambiguity concerns the iden- 
tity of the body at the bottom of the cliff. Altman has 
carefully allowed for two possible interpretations. The 
first, the rational interpretation, is that Kathryn has 
had a breakdown. Her confusion over her sexual feelings 
and desires, her frustrations with her artistic career, and 
her resentment over her contradictory need for the security 
promised by a traditional marriage all lead to her subcon- 
scious taking control. Once in control, the subconscious 
tricks her into killing Hugh. 



88 

Justifications for this interpretation include the 
shot of Hugh's. train returning and someone, presumably Hugh, 
getting off the train; Kathryn passing the land rover that 
Hugh was to ride home on had he returned early; and Kath- 
ryn ' s alter-ego sounding more like Hugh than Kathryn with 
all the "Jesus Christs" and "Goddamns." Also used as evi- 
dence of Hugh's death is Kathryn' s final phone call to 
Hugh in London; although she talks to him., he has never an- 
swered the phone. Throughout the conversation, the phone 
keeps ringing - as it must since Hugh is dead at the bottom 
of the cliff. Perhaps the final evidence for Hugh's death 
is the genre Altman is working in. Hugh's death makes 
sense and gives the film its twist and irony necessary for 
a strong conclusion. With this ending, Images becomes a 
clever reworking of Repulsion . 

This interpretation is accepted, however, only by ig- 
noring contradictory evidence. We cannot be sure, for ex- 
ample, that the person getting off the train is Hugh; the 
camera is too far away and the focus is too soft to make 
any identification. Also, shortly after the train shot, 
Kathryn declines Marcel's dinner invitation because she 
has "something very important to do," thus indicating a 
foreknowledge of her run-in with Hugh/her alter-ego on the 
cliff. But since she does not and cannot know about Hugh's 
return, she must have imagined the train shot and therefore 
also imagined the meeting on the cliff. Also, when the 
imaginary Marcel asks how she will manage to be alone with 



89 

him, Kathryn answers, "I'll simply think him (Hugh) away, 
just as I thought you here." Shortly thereafter, Hugh is 
conveniently called away. Hugh's riddles are further proof 
that he is not really dead. "What is black and white, 
black and white, black and white?" he asks. "A nun fall- 
ing down the stairs," is the grisly ansv/er. And later, the 
alter-ego/Hugh falls down the cliff - and the film shifts 
from color to black and white. Neither the alter-ego nor 
Hugh are nuns but both may be figments of Kathryn' s imagina- 
tion and therefore "none" (nothing) in the physical sense. 
Hugh's last riddle continues the veral pun. "What's the 
difference between a rabbit? None, one is both the same." 

If Hugh is not down at the bottom of the cliff, nothing and 

2 

no one is. He, then, is no more real than the alter-ego. 

Still more confusing is Kathryn 's speech before running the 
body off the cliff. Since "Hugh" and "you" are homonyms, 
we can never be sure what she is saying; is it "I know it's 
you (the alter-ego) but I found out I can get rid of you," 
or "I know it's Hugh but I found out I can get rid of 
Hugh"? Since the two characters speak their lines inter- 
changeably, the scene may very well be an extension of 
Kathryn 's imagination. Finally, when Kathryn enters her 
London apartment, the bathroom is filled with steam. If 
Hugh had been killed and since the alter-ego is a creature 
of the mind, the bathroom could not have been used. Since 
someone has been in the bathroom, and since Kathryn has 
just arrived at the apartment, it is unlikely that anyone 
but Hugh, still in London, could have steamed it up. 



90 

There are, then, two equally plausible explanations, 
that the real Hugh was killed and that no one really was 
killed. If the real Hugh were killed, the movie is a 
chilling, if familiar, psychological suspense thriller. 
If he were not really killed, the terror rem.ains the same 
but focuses on the horror of Kathryn's madness. Images 
then becomes more like a nightmare, equally upsetting but 
less tangible. 

To decide which of the two is the correct interpreta- 
tion is futile because both are included in the film's de- 
sign. Unlike Repulsion , which grounds itself to objective 
reality, Images cultivates its subjectivity and ambiguities, 
If one and not both of the interpretations is true, we will 
know what really happened and will leave the theatre secure 
and confident. If, however, we are not sure, we will leave 
the film confused, disoriented, frustrated. Because Images 
never endorses or returns to objective reality and because 
its ambiguity insures our dislocation. Images remains con- 
sistent to its metaphor of schizophrenia, a split from 
reality. 

The maintaining of ambiguities and insolvable puzzles 
in Images is consistent v/ith the schizophrenic metaphor in 
another way. Because emotions are so important to this 
film and because Kathryn's moods are so changeable, she 
and the film have no one constant emotion. Similarly, we 
can never know if Hugh was or was not killed; Altman is 
forcing us to have an ambivalent emotional response. 



91 

Depending on our own mood, our reaction to this variable 
film changes each time we see the film. One time we may 
be struck by the horror of Hugh' s death; another time we 
may be drawn more to Kathryn and the power of her madness; 
still another time we may just be carried by the beauty of 
the film's craft and colors and be oblivious to the drama 
of its content. Like Kathryn, we can pick, choose, and 
react to whatever we want. All the ambiguities and irra- 
tionalities invite and demand our active emotional parti- 
cipation. 

Images , then, is carefully structured to simulate a 
schizophrenic experience. It demands an intense personal 
involvement from its audience and rewards this involvement 
with confusion, ambiguities, insolvable puzzles, and frus- 
tration. Especially frustrating is the desire for a ra- 
tional coherence and a definite conclusion.; the m.ore we 
want to know and try to find out what really happened, the 
more frustrated and disoriented we become - and the deeper 
we are drawn into the schizophrenic experience. 

As emotionally powerful and perplexing as the final 
confrontation in the bathroom and the flashback to the 
cliff are, they are not the film's last moments. After 
IvdLhryn screams and her alter-ego moves towards her, the 
credits appear over the jigsaw puzzle that has been worked 
on throughout the film. The missing pieces have all been 
found; the puzzle is of Green Cove, Kathryn 's country home, 
and has a unicorn standing by it. Rather than with the 



music or abstract sounds of the rest of the film, Images 
concludes with, the ending of the children's book Kathryn 
has been writing. This time, however, the words are read 
not by Kathryn, but by young Susannah. By ending with 
this transformation, Altman underscores the importance of 
their relationship to the film. 

From the beginning, Kathryn and Susannah react to each 
other intensely, instinctively, and non-verbally . Prima- 
rily because we do not enter into the relationship, it does 
not seem intellectually or rationally motivated. For ex- 
ample, the first time Kathryn sees Susannah, the girl is 
hiding in the cupboard, Kathryn assumes she is just another 
ghost and shuts the door on her. When Susannah is finally 
let out of the cupboard, she is understandably irritated 
and sticks out her tongue at Kathryn, who surprisingly 
sticks her tongue out too. Although this may not seem 
proper behavior to us, Susannah understands and accepts 
Kathryn 's action. Next, Kathryn asks how old Susannah is 
and learns that she is twelve and a half. Susannah then 
asks how old Kathryn is; "Thirteen and a quarter," is 
Kathryn' s answer. Although we may be surprised by the in- 
appropriateness and strangeness of her remark, Susannah 
aqain understands instinctively. Altman allows the two 
.characters to indulge in almost a private joke and sets 
the tone for their ensuing relationship. Throughout the 
course of the film, the two become increasingly close, but 
the nature of the friendship and their underlying motiva- 
tions are never explicitly developed. 



93 

We do know that they closely resemble each other; the 
physical similarities are startling enough for Marcel to 
take special notice of them. Kathryn's concern for Susan- 
nah' s feeling and welfare quickly replace her initial sur- 
prise and ease Susannah's initial hostility; when Susannah 
asks her to be her best friend, Kathryn is delighted. Be- 
cause of their friendship, Susannah stops caring about a 
visit from her foinner best friend, a fifteen year old city 
girl. Susannah wants to know if Kathryn looked like her 
when she was younger because "v/hen I grow up, "I'm going 
to be exactly like you." Later, when Susannah asks what 
Kathryn did as a child, Kathryn answers that "I used to go 
for walks, tell myself stories, play in the woods." Then 
Kathryn asks Susannah what she would do if Kathryn had to 
go away. Susannah calmly answers, "I'd tell myself stories, 
play in the woods. I'd make up a friend." 

We see them drifting closer and closer to each other, 
merging their individual identities. Our suspicions and 
their verbal exchanges are, however, inadequate preparation 
for the final shot of the two of them together. Kathryn 
drops Susannah off at Marcel's and is about to drive away. 
She looks at Susannah through the glass car window; Susan- 
nah looks at her. They do not speak, for they already have 
said good-bye, but their faces become superimposed onto 
each other. In what is almost a freeze frame, the physi- 
cal blending completes the mental merger; the two have en- 
tered into a chilling communion. 



94 

As Susannah reads the book's v7ords, we see the unicorn 
superimposed over the puzzle and learn that the name of the 
book is In Search of Unicorns . The unicorn, a mythical 
beast, can be fed, as the legend goes, only by a virgin. 
Kathryn not only is no virgin, but is a repository of un- 
resolved sexual conflicts; she cannot feed or even find the 
unicorn. She can, however, find Susannah, a virgin who can 
feed it. At the end of the film, Kathryn has mystically 
transmitted her identity to Susannah and has thus initiated 
Susannah into a circular process that will someday see 
Susannah become a Kathryn in search of her own Susannah. 

The idea of a circular process is reinforced by the 
artistic circle of Images . The film opens with the camera 
looking through the window at Kathryn while the opening of 
the book is being read aloud. At the end, the unicorn re- 
places the camera and looks through the window at exactly 
the same angle. The constantly searching camera finally 
rests on the object of its search, the unicorn. The rest 
is, however, deceptively temporary; soon Susannah will grow 
up to be just like Kathryn, will lose her ability to feed 
the unicorn, and will reenact the story of spiritual pos- 
session. 

Because Kathryn knows about the pain, confusion, and 
terror that eventually will descend upon Susannah, she is 
clearly apprehensive and upset over the transmission of 
identities. Whenever Susannah makes a verbal or an emo- 
tional progression into the merging of their identities. 



95 

Kathryn reacts with a look of anger, unhappiness, and warn- 
ing. When Susannah tells her that she is going to grow up 
to be just like her, that she does not need any other friend 
besides Kathryn, and that she will behave just like Kathryn 
used to, Kathryn does not look pleased, but worried and 
frustrated. However troubled Kathryn is, however, she does 
nothing to stop Susannah's increasing involvement; it is 
almost as if Kathryn is a powerless bystander watching an 
irreversible process. And after the two faces merge in 
the car window, the symbolic merger of their two identities, 
Kathryn speeds away, her face contorted and grim. 

The idea of possession is primal and familiar. Al- 
though the idea is not intellectually frightening because 
it is so improbable, it is emotionally terrifying on a non- 
rational, non-verbal level. Similarly, we can experience 
the bizarre side to Kathryn and Susannah's relationship 
without knowing why intellectually. In review after re- 
view, Altman was criticized for not sufficiently, or more 
properly, intellectually and rationally developing their 
relationship. This criticism, like the complaint that 
Images is too subjective, seems invalid because it stems 
from a failure to understand and accept the film on its 
own terms; we cannot understand the relationship, but can 
feel it. And feeling, not understanding, is what Images 
is all about. 

A classic symptom of schizophrenia concerns a faulty 
perception of stimuli that lead to responses that are 



96 

inaccurate. In other words, the schizophrenic takes or- 
dinary stimuli, perceives them differently than a non- 
schizophrenic does, and thus behaves differently than a 
non-schizophrenic. Because Kathryn perceives the world 
differently, she can look at a room and conjure up ghosts 
that seem real or can listen to Hugh and suddenly turn him 
into Rene, Marcel, or her alter-ego. Misinterpreting her 
environment, she turns the mundane into a grotesque private 
world. 

We in the audience have a difficult role in Images 
because we are expected to enter Kathryn 's private world 
and experience with her. Because her world is not based 
on rationality but instead relies so heavily on her moods, 
predispositions, and emotions, her world is disorienting 
to us. As we sit through the film, we logically try to 
make some sense out of Kathryn ' s actions and look for 
some pattern that we can use to understand what is happen- 
ing. Because we are trying to filter this grotesquerie 
into our more mundane, non-schizophrenic value systems, we 
are bound to be frustrated. After all, these values are 
unable to translate, much less explain, the irrational 
components of Kathryn ' s world. More important than the 
frustration and the futility of our efforts is the ironic 
reversal Altman plays on us; he gets us to exhibit a 
schizophrenic reaction similar to Kathryn' s. Although she 
takes the mundane and makes it grotesque and we take the 
grotesque and try to make it mundane, both are taking 



97 

stimuli, misinterpreting the context, and then acting ac- 
cording to the ■ resulting false perceptions. Although we 
may be irritated, then, we must admit that Altman has moved 
us one step closer to Kathryn's schizophrenic experience. 

Images embodies another symptom of schizophrenia, loose 

4 
association. Suspense and horror films are noted for their 

relentless pacing that keeps us on the edges of our seats. 
Repulsion , for example, builds from a slow first third to 
an increasingly quick rhythjn. To help the faster pace, 
Polanski relies almost entirely on the straight cut, the 
fastest editing device. Images, however, goes against 
this pattern, using non-functional transitions like super- 
impositions, wind chimes, and hanging mobiles. Although 
they form a pattern of visual consistency and are beauti- 
ful, they are distracting because they slow down the film 
and draw attention to themselves, not to Kathryn and to 
the events. Also, the camera wanders over the rural land- 
scapes for no other reason than the countryside's beauty, 
thus distracting from the functional rhythm normally as- 
sociated with the genre. This dreamy, non-direct style 
breaks the continuity and pacing necessary to generate 
sustained suspense. 

Altman undoubtedly knows this. He also knows that 
the faster moving, more linear style that would achieve a 
superficial suspense would sacrifice the film's subjec- 
tivity. By employing a loose style, he is using the camera 
as Kathryn's eyes; he is making us see the world in the 



98 

same loose associational way she does. In this way, he 
successfully intertwines Image's theme and style. 

The final symptom of schizophrenia that Altman in- 
corporates into the design of the film is the loss of ego. 
A non-schizophrenic has no trouble distinguishing between 
himself and other people and objects; he knows where his 

body ends and where some other one begins. A schizo- 

5 
phrenic, on the other hand, cannot. Thus, Kathryn ' s ego 

perception becomes so disoriented that she sees her alter- 
ego, an extension of herself, watching her actions and try- 
ing to integrate into her ego. Kathryn is also confused 
enough to be unable to separate her husband from her alter- 
ego and her other male fantasies. Because she cannot tell 
who is real and who is not, we cannot either. As we wonder 
which one is real, we experience a similar, if less imme- 
diate, loss of ego boundaries and are forced to deal with 
one more aspect of schizophrenia. Even more than that, 
however, the loss of ego boundaries is the bridge between 
schizophrenia and Altman' s idea of the artistic experience. 
Kathryn' s ability to detatch and watch herself is not 
much different from the detatched way we watch movies; 
there is always a separation or distance between film and 
audience. This distance inhibits a complete integration 
with the film and, as a result, inhibits the ability to 
feel and experience the film. Since there is this distance 
and lack of total involvement, there is a shift from feel- 
ing to understanding, which is an intellectual concept 



99 

requiring some differentiation between the screen and the 
audience. 

Placed in this context, Altman's desire to make a 
movie like a painting that is looked at and emotionally 
responded to becomes especially important; his use of 
schizophrenia as a metaphor for the artistic experience 
seems inspired. If, like the schizophrenic, we can be 
disoriented and separated from our objective reality, then 
we can be shaken loose from our rational vantage points, 
can minimize the inherent distance between us and the 
movie, and can feel the film. 

The demand that we feel, rather than understand. Images 
motivates the film's design. Had Altman wanted us to know 
what really happened or why Kathryn was sexually frustrated 
and schizophrenic, he would have told us. Instead, he has 
built a series of insolvable puzzles and ambiguities that 
prohibit a rational, definitive interpretation. And since 
we cannot react securely and rationally, we are forced into 
an emotional response. 

Altman purposely confuses the conventional relation- 
ship between film and audience even further by intertwining 
the reality of his actors' lives with their characters' 
lives. As the movie begins, develops, and ends, Kathryn 
is writing a book called In Search of Unicorns . The book 
was actually published; its author, a woman named Susannah 
York, who is also the actress who plays Kathryn. In ad- 
dition, Kathryn 's young friend, called Susannah in the movie. 



100 

is played by Kathryn Harrison. Rene Axiberjonis plays Hugh; 
Hugh Millais plays Marcel; Marcel Bozzuffi plays Rene. 
Roles, reality, and illusion are thus blurred and eventually 
indistinguishable; a rational response to the movie is made 
even more unlikely. 

The first and the final clue to the film is in its 
title. Images . Altman gives us a series of images that ul- 
timately must be taken as their own reality. He uses 
glass, mirrors, lenses, windows, and transparent wind 
chimes that all make images or reflections of the real 
world. In Images , however, they have a life of their own; 
they are transitory devices because they often are used 
to shift the locale or to indicate movement, but they are 
not used to establish a pattern or hint that the film or 
Kathryn is moving from "reality" to "fantasy." Instead, 
they become beautiful objects that reflect and create 
images for their own sake and their own justification. 
When we try to make them replicas of our own lives, the 
lack of a clear pattern and satisfying purpose frustrate 
and disappoint us. But when we accept the images on their 
own terms, forgetting to bend them to our own preconceived 
values and viewing habits, we are ready to enter the ar- 
tistic experience. Yes, the men in the film may be real 
characters in a traditional sense; yes, they may only be 
images generated from Kathryn ' s imagination; yes, they can 
be both real and imaginary. Freed from the false rational 
need to mean something and be explainable, Altman is 



101 

presenting a series of images and letting us respond to 
them. As he says, "I'm not going to tell you anything.... 
I'm not even going to show you anything; I'm going to let 

you see something. And if you don't help me, my picture 

6 
can't be any good." 

Images , then, is a uniquely explicit plea for an 
alert and aware audience. Surrender, it begs us, to the 
artistic vision; abandon the insistence on the rational 
and mundane world and revel in the beautiful and horrify- 
ing new world of Images . 

Just as McCabe is Altman's clearest explanation of 
his socio-political philosophy. Images is his most overt 
statement about the film experience. Movies should not 
have to tie up loose ends or be simple reflections of the 
outside world; unless they want to, movies should not have 
to cater to passive audiences. And since Images demands 
a more active and flexible audience, those not willing to 
accept their new roles will find themselves shut out and 
bored by it. But those willing to help, willing to suspend 
demands for rationality and reality in place of the more 
individual standards set by the movie itself, may be re- 
warded by a more expansive, more emotional, and more ar- 
tistic film experience. 



102 



Notes 

Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Spring- 
field, Mass., 1968), p. 2030. 

2 

For a similar discussion of Hugh's riddles, read 

Mark Falonga's review of Images in Film Quarterly , summer, 

1973, pp. 46-48. 

3 

Arieti Silvano, "Schizophrenia," Encyclopedia Bri - 

tannica , 1969 ed. , v. 19, p. 1161. 

Webster's, op. cit . , p. 2030. 

^ Ibid. 

Terry Curtis Fox, "Nashville Chats: An Interview 
with Robert Altman," Chicago Reader , July 4, 1975, v. 4, 
no. 39, p. 10. 



CHAPTER 7 
THE LONG GOOD-BYE 



Just as McCabe and Mrs. Miller is Altman's western. 
The Long Good-bye is his contribution to the detective film. 
And just as Altman did with the western, he examines the 
conventions of the detective genre and carries them to their 
logical ends. 

From the beginning, movie private eyes have dealt with 
the seamier aspects of life, regardless of the social class 
involved. By necessity, and with the notable exception of 
The Thin Man's Nick and Nora Charles, the private detec- 
tive has been isolated from the rest of society, including 
the police and the legal authorities. The world may be 
amoral or immoral, but the private eye consistently re- 
mains true to his personal, often old-fashioned standard 
of morality. Because he is a moral force in a non-moral 
world and because of his peculiar occupational demands, 
he usually must sacrifice a traditional lifestyle and must 
exhibit a healthy disrespect for conventional social be- 
havior, especially behavior revolving around the nine to 
five, forty hour a week job. This helps explain the typi- 
cal private eye look - the rumpled, unshaven, chain smok- 
ing, rough talking, smart alecky, solitary outsider. 

103 



104 

Although rarely wealthy, he is attractive to women, espe- 
cially those of. high breeding, who do not often meet a man 
of such honesty and masculine sexuality. And like the best 
whores, the best private eyes hide a sentimental streak 
behind their cynical, hard exteriors. 

The prototype private detective is unquestionably 
Humphrey Bogart; the definitive movie, probably The Mal - 
tese Falcon ; the key scene, the one where Sam Spade (Bo- 
gart) refuses to listen to Bridget's plea for love and 
mercy and turns her in to the police. Yes, he admits, she 
is the only woman for him; yes, he does love her - but she 
has killed his partner and "that has to count for some- 
thing." Also, if he lets her go, she can use his action 
against him whenever she needs to. His combination of 
cynical awareness and moral considerations leaves him no 
real choice; he must make a personal sacrifice and report 
her. Although he is composed and determined when he makes 
this decision, he is honest enough to admit to the loneli- 
ness and pain he will feel because of it. 

If The Maltese Falcon is the most popular detective 
movie, the most beloved cult private eye film may be The 
Big Sleep . Bogart moves easily from Hammett ' s Sam Spade 
to Chandler's Phillip Marlowe. Although he plays basically 
the. same role in both, the two films are totally different. 

Where The Maltese Falcon is tight and fast. The Big 
Sleep is incoherent. There were many scriptwriters, in- 
cluding William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett (who wrote the 



105 

screenplay for The Long Good-bye ) , who worked on The Big 
Sleep . The result is a plot that is unusually indecipher- 
able. Characters drop in and out of the movie as fast as 
the bullets fly; coinplications develop without regard for 
length, theme, or story; one liners exist independently 
from the rest of the film. The brilliance of some of these 
scenes and the undeniable chemistry of Bogart and Bacall 
make the film memorable; over the years, the film's con- 
fusion has even attained a reputation for uniqueness and 
charm. Indulge, its devotees say, in its obtuseness; get 
lost in its meanderings. Thirty years later, Altman would 
take this looseness and intentionally incorporate it into 
his thematic design. 

In addition to the Bogart Marlowe, there is another 
Marlowe from the forties. Two years before The' Big Sleep , 
Dick Powell played Marlowe in a film called both Farewell 
My liOvely and Murder My Sweet . Although not widely re- 
meinbered, it is arguably a better film than The Big Sleep . 
Complicated but reasonably coherent, it is important here 
because it offers Powell's personal brand of befuddlement 
instead of Bogart's gutsy persona. Under Altman *s guidance, 
the two Marlowes would eventually coalesce into a peculiar 
alliance. For as he did with the western, Altman has un- 
sentimentalized the detective genre and has taken its tra- 
ditions to their logical conclusions. 

We first meet Altman' s Marlowe in his typical private 
eye apartment. Framed by a wall scarred with the residue 



106 

of struck matches and by a bed with dirty, criampled sheets, 
Marlowe is pried out of his bed by his cat, who is hungry 
but particular. Regardless of the hour, the cat will eat 
only Curry Brand Cat Food, which, of course, Marlowe does 
not have. After a futile search at an all night grocery 
store for the obscure brand (they all taste alike anyway, 
the stock boy tells him) , Marlowe returns home to meet a 
scratched Terry Lennox. 

In terms of the plot line, the cat episode is mean- 
ingless; the film really begins with Lennox's request to 
be driven to Mexico. It is, however, an extremely funny 
and original sequence. In addition, it subtly establishes 
several important motifs. First, it begins the pattern of 
Marlowe being inconvenienced and used by others; the cat 
is just the first of many to ask him for a favor. It also 
introduces the idea that Marlowe is a loser; not only does 
he fail to find the cat food, but ultimately cannot even 
keep the cat. Finally, Altman sets up the first parallel 
between Marlowe and Lennox. Despite Marlowe's apparent 
loyalty and generosity, which later seems to distinguish 
him from Lennox, both have been scratched on the face; 
Marlowe by his cat, Lennox by his wife. 

The meeting with Lennox not only sets the plot in mo- 
tion, but also demonstrates the importance Marlowe places 
on friendship. In the middle of the night, Lennox asks 
Marlowe to drive him to Tiajuana. Although Marlowe is 
understandably unhappy about the long drive, he feels his 



107 



friendship with Lennox obligates him to drive Lennox to 
Mexico^ which he does, no questions asked. 

When Marlowe returns to Los Angeles, the police are 
waiting to question him about his role in the Lennox af- 
fair. The police are thugs with badges who thrive on the 
abuses of authority and brutality that their role can en- 
compass. As such, they do not understand or believe Mar- 
lowe's refusal to pry into Lennox's situation just because 
the two were friends. So the police bully Marlowe in an 
ineffective search for some answers. But partly as a re- 
sult of Marlowe's distaste for the way they ask questions, 
partly because Lennox is not there to defend himself, partly 
because of Marlowe's ignorance, and partly because of his 
professional ethics and reputation, Marlowe refuses to an- 
swer their questions. Rather than be intimidated into dis- 
loyalty and submission, he breaks into an Al Jolson routine 
and gets thrown into jail. 

Although Marlowe's use of fingerprinting ink for black- 
face and his choice of Jolson as a role are original, Mar- 
lowe's behavior is conventional movie private eye behavior. 
He distrusts cheap force and corrupt authorities and re- 
fuses to be intimidated by them. Regardless of his own 
comfort and situation, he remains loyal to his friend. 
And, perhaps most of all, he has a sarcastic and irre- 
pressible sense of humor that complements his courage and 
stamina. Because Marlowe has so much humor and the others 
have no sense of hijmor at all, he is the only one who can 



108 

laugh and not take himself seriously. Because he is more 
likeable and more refreshing than the other characters, he 
wins our sympathy and emotional identification, just like 
Bogart ' s did. 

Marlowe not only demonstrates a fidelity to many of 
his role's traditional values, but also maintains its tra- 
ditionally high standard of professionalism. When he ac- 
cepts the assignment of locating Eileen Wade's missing 
husband, Roger, he quickly finds him even though he has 
only one obscure clue. Roger Wade, it turns out, is a pa- 
tient-prisoner at Dr. Verringer's private sanitarium; after 
Marlowe finds Roger, he then must rescue him. Which Mar- 
lowe easily does. 

Marlowe not only succeeds in rescuing Roger, but also 
succeeds in not being overwhelmed by this oversized, hard 
living man. Although Wade is more famous, more imposing, 
more financially successful, and more complicated than Mar- 
lowe, Wade is unable to awe or manipulated Marlowe into be- 
coming Wade's servant. Wade does extract Marlowe's promise 
to return to the writer's home, but he fails to convert 
Marlowe into another parasitic and slavish hanger-on. Mar- 
lowe never surrenders his integrity and functions humanely, 
responsibly, and as his own man. 

From Wade, Marlowe moves to another set of characters, 
Marty Augustine and his ecumenical gang of hoods. Marty, 
a very rich and powerful gangster, threatens Marlowe and 
gets the same bravado that the police got. Although 



109 

Augustine hits harder and plays more dangerous games than 
the police, Marlowe still refuses to be intimidated. He 
m.ust accept some physical pain here but uses his wit to 
beat the gangster at his own game. Marlowe's eluding of 
Harry, his inept tail, his own effortless success at follow- 
ing Augustine, and his refusal to cower further emphasize 
Marlowe's self-confidence and agility. 

In addition to the traditional private eye character, 
Altman gives us the traditional complications of the pri- 
vate eye film. First, Marlowe, who has never accepted the 
labeling of Lennox's death as a suicide, gets a $5,000 bill 
from Lennox. He learns that Lennox was Augustine's delivery 
boy; he catches Eileen Wade lying about her relationship 
with Lennox and about her husband Roger's possible rela- 
tionship with Lennox's wife; he finds out that the Wades 
and Augustine are involved in a dispute about money; he 
witnesses the mysterious return of Augustine's money and 
the horrifying suicide of Roger; he finds that Eileen has 
disappeared. Each complication intertwines Lennox's fate 
with the other characters' activities; Marlowe's concern 
for Lennox's reputation and his substantial commitment of 
time and emotions continue to draw him deeper into the 
mystery. Though everyone else is satisfied, Marlowe takes 
his obligation to his friend and to the truth more seriously. 
Even without a client, Marlowe is determined to finish the 
investigation . 



110 

His path leads, of course, back to Mexico and to Lennox. 
With Lennox's $5,000, Marlowe buys the necessary information. 
Lennox, who is Eileen Wade's lover, killed his wife. Roger 
Wade, however, was convinced that he killed her in one of 
his drunken rages; Eileen and Lennox use this belief to 
drive Roger to suicide. With the spouses out of the pic- 
ture, Eileen and Lennox planned to meet and live in wealthy 
anonymity in Mexico. Armed with this information, Marlowe 
is realy to confront Lennox. 

In their meeting, Lennox is unable to understand Mar- 
lowe's anger. Lennox was in trouble, knew Marlowe was 
there, planned to pay him well for the inconvenience, and 
so had used him. "After all," he asks, "what are friends 
for?" 

Marlowe sees it differently. Friends, he says, are 
"To turn to, Terry. Not to use. You put my neck right 
under the ax. What's worse, you lied to me." 

Lennox justifies his actions by telling Marlowe that 
Marlowe is out of the mainstream of contemporary ethics. 
"You're always going to be disappointed in people. In this 
world, you've got to look out for number one, and that's 
something you've never learned. I guess you never will 
learn. " 

Marlowe's answer and reaction is surprising. "Just a 
born loser, that's me. I even lost my cat. (Produces a 
gun) Terry, there's such a thing as being too damned smart. 
(Shoots and kills Terry) " 



Marlowe kills Lennox, then, but not because Lennox 
has brutally killed his wife. Instead, the real reason 
he has to die is because he abused Marlowe's friendship 
and violated Marlowe's code of conduct. Marlowe's murder 
of Lennox recalls an earlier speech given by the gangster, 
Marty Augustine. "He was a criminal. He murdered his 
wife. (But) That was just a m.inor crime. A misdemeanor. 
The real crime was that he stole my money. The penalty 
for that is capital punishment." For Marlowe, money is not 
that important; his standard of conduct, however, is. When 
Lennox violates this code, Marlowe is as personally offended 
as Augustine is over the theft of his money. And when Mar- 
lowe executes Lennox, he is acting no differently than Au- 
gustine would - or than Lennox did. Marlowe has placed 
his own value system over every other standard and thus 
feels totally justified in punishing the offender. That 
the punishment is motivated by revenge and involves muder 
does not matter. In Augustine's words, Lennox deserves 
capital punishment. And if Marlowe does not administer the 
penalty, who would? 

With this scene, Altman has taken the private eye's 

glorification of the righteous individual to its logical 

2 
conclusion. Marlowe is the only positive force m the 

movie - likeable, witty, secure, competent, loyal, dedi- 
cated. He is also smart, much too smart to believe that 
our existing institutions would effectively and impartially 
administer justice. So if morality and justice are to be 



112 



upheld, Marlowe himself must be the avenger, the hand of 
justice. Thus,. Marlowe, a decent man, seems to act out of 
decent and moral motivations. He is so convinced of the 
moral correctness of his stance that he calmly executes a 
once good friend. And after administering the punishment, 
he feels so cleansed that he dances down the street. Un- 
like Sam Spade and his sleepless nights, Marlowe will sleep 
soundly, untroubled by any twinge of conscience. By making 
Marlowe a vigilante capable of murder and by thus identify- 
ing him with all the other characters, including Lennox and 
Augustine, Altman has shown that the private eye is really 
no different than any of the others and that the moral su- 
periority, integrity, and heroism of the private eye is 
just another myth. 

The characterization of Marlowe as a self-styled agent 
of justice is not only the film' s radical departure from 
conventional private eye movies, but also the structural 
device that gives The Long Good-bye its coherence. Like 
the other Altman films. The Long Good-bye appears to be 
loose and non-linear a la The Big Sleep . Characters wander 
in and out of the film with little apparent reason; the 
episodic pace of the film continues oblivious to the more 
central concerns of the plot. Thus, such loosely related 
characters like the cat, the yoga ladies, and Dr. Verringer 
find their way into the film, adding depth and atmosphere 
even though they do not further the story line. Upon 
closer examination, however, the episodes and characters 



113 



are all directly related. No matter how subtle the connec- 
tion, each character and each episode reiterate the film's 
major concern, the unrelenting pursuit of one's own desires, 
regardless of the needs of and cost to others. 

The opening episode with the cat is a good example of 
this. Even if it were saying nothing about the rest of 
the film, it would still be an excellent first scene be- 
cause it is very funny and arresting. No one sitting in 
the audience would be confused or thrown off by the scene, 
even if the more subtle nuances were missed. Although the 
movie could have begun with Lennox barging into Marlowe ' s 
apartment, the cat scene works cinematically . In fact, 
however, it also immediately defines Marlowe's relationship 
to the outside world. Throughout the film, people will use 
Marlowe for their own purposes, regardless of the incon- 
venience to Marlowe. Despite Marlowe's efforts, he is un- 
able to successfully interact and maintain relationships 
with his cat or with his other characters. 

Marlowe's next door neighbors, the candlestick ladies 
who prance around nude in a yoga-drug induced state of 
mindlessness , are another example of a set of characters 
that seem unrelated to the rest of the film. They play no 
part in the plot; as Marlowe says, "They aren't even there." 
Concerned only with their own pleasures, they do not hesi- 
tate to ask Marlowe to buy them groceries even though they 
never do him a favor in return. But the ladies are never 
unfairly used by Altman; there are no cheap or prurient 



114 

zooms in on their naked bodies. Although they are pursuing 
their own desires more obviously than any other character, 
they are not criticized for wasting their lives nor are 
they extolled for having fun without hurting anyone else. 
Instead, they are used because they are visually interest- 
ing and amusing, because they elicit some very humorous 
and immature reactions from the male characters, and be- 
cause they further the film's concern with the pursuit of 
personal pleasure. 

Dr. Verringer, the quack who is treating Roger Wade, 
also has little to do with the film's story line, especially 
since his original importance as Wade's alibi has been cut 
from the film. But like the others, he adds depth and at- 
mosphere to Marlowe's story while remaining an independent 
cinematic character. 

While Verringer 's hospital is obviously comic, his 
final confrontation is unsettling and strange. The unusual 
little doctor wanders into Wade's party, demands his $5,000 
(curious how this sum keeps popping up) , and slaps Wade on 
the face. We are still reeling from the film's first slap, 
Atagustine's Coke bottle scene, so we empathize with the 
stunned Wade, who obediently writes the check. Verringer 
demonstrates the way of the world; like Marlowe, Lennox, 
Augustine, and Eileen, he feels he has been abused and feels 
justified in behaving insensitively, forcefully, and self- 
fishly so that he can regain what he feels is his. 



115 

Since we are shown Verringer's behavior but are not 
given the information necessary to understand it, Verringer 
is a typical Altman peripheral character. Because of a 
lack of background information, we are forced to respond 
to the character instinctively, emotionally, but not in- 
tellectually. Because most movies are artifically closed 
and omniscient, we are not used to this less rational style 
of film-making. But as Citizen Kane warns us as it fades 
out on a "No Trespassing" sign, movies do not always suc- 
ceed in getting inside and revealing a character. The 
Long Good-bye does not even try. Thus, we are amused and 
then as shocked and confused by Verringer's behavior as 
the guests at the party are. And Verringer leaves as 
quickly as he came, answering no questions, adding emotion 
and mystery to the film but prohibiting a safe intellectual 
response. 

Although Wade is slightly different because he is 
totally unsuccessful in getting what he wants, he does try 
to inflict his problems and needs onto everyone else. 
Afraid that he can no longer love and write, he tries to 
bully his wife and intimidate Marlowe into being his ser- 
vant. When neither of these efforts works, he surrounds 
himself with his eager army of parasitic freeloaders. 
Underneath his brash facade, however, he is alone and 
afraid. When he is publicly assaulted and humiliated by 
Verringer, Wade cringes and cries. He does not have the 
self-assurance and toughness of Verringer or Eileen; he 



116 

cannot cope with their sense of purpose and tactics so he 
writes the check and he commits suicide. More than anyone 
else in the film. Wade is the victim, the weak prey who 
cannot survive in The Long Good-bye ' s harsh, egocentric 
world. 

Like the other characters. Wade is developed enough 
to make the plot line intelligible but not enough for us 
to respond intellectually. We know that he is a heavy 
drinker who is subject to amnesiac blackouts, that he loves 
his wife and threatens to commit suicide to keep her love, 
that he is afraid he has killed Lennox's wife and lost his 
talent. We know he is a loud coward, full of meaningless 
sound and fury. We do not know enough about him, however, 
to really understand the private Roger Wade, who remains 
enigmatic and distant. His role in the film is frustrat- 
ing because he is a potentially interesting but undeveloped 
character. By dying before we really get to know him, 
Wade intrigues, fascinates, and involves us on an emotional, 
'•iOt a rational, level. Altman thus insures our freshness 
and our interest. 

Augustine and his gang of hoods are more engaging than 
Wade, but not as challenging. As respectable hoods, they 
offer the obvious commentary on success in the seventies. 
Augustine, the head hood, is rich and acceptable enough to 
live next door to Richard Nixon. Like the other charac- 
ters, Augustine is eccentric, affable, and even benevolent 
until his interests are threatened. Then he is capable of 



117 

casual and extreme brutality. His willingness to scar his 
lover so that Marlowe would take him seriously and his 
speech labeling the theft of his money as the real crime 
are the two most explicit explanations of The Long Good - ' 
bye's world, especially since the acts are juxtaposed 
against Augustine's no3rmally ridiculous and seemingly harm- 
less personality. Had his capacity for cruelty and vio- 
lence remained undeveloped, his obsession with physical 
fitness and his cluinsy, inefficient gangsters would remain 
clever satires about California society. But Augustine 
and the others in the film only appear harmless and humor- 
ous when their self-interests are not threatened. As soon 
as someone takes something from them that they value, they 
are capable of any cohesive action to retrieve the object 
and are brutally able to punish the offender. 

Like Augustine, Lennox is a familiar and superficial 
character. More than any other, he exists to give the 
plot direction; his murder of his wife, his escape, and 
his fake suicide motivate the entire movie, Marlowe's ef- 
forts to say good-bye to him, to clear, explain and finally 
get even with him provide the framework for the film. And 
Lennox is probably the purest representation of the film's 
theme. When asked to justify his unnecessarily brutal 
beating of his wife, he tells Marlowe he had no choice. 
She threatened to turn him in to the police, scratched him, 
and made him lose his temper. In other words, she incon- 
venienced him and interfered with his pursuit of the good 



118 

life. Because she caused hiin trouble, she deserved to be 
eliminated from Lennox's point of view. When he killed her, 
then, Lennox had no guilt feelings or pangs of regret. 
People, after all, are there to be used. And Lennox, like 
all the other characters, do not mind using them. 

Perhaps the most inscrutable character of all is 
Eileen Wade. She is beautiful, cunning, and ambiguous. A 
quick but not totally convincing liar, she claims to love 
Roger and be terrified of his violent and erratic behavior. 
At the same time, she seems malevolently manipulative, cold, 
and unforgivingly judgmental. She is suggestively teasing 
and helpless around Marlowe (except domestically) and is 
constantly using her sexuality as a tool to get information. 

Her amorality is frightening; because she loves Lennox, 
she is able to forgive his brutal beating and killing of 
his wife and is able to help push Roger into suicide. 
Eileen, like the others, is interested in getting what she 
wants. In her case, it is a life with Lennox. To realize 
her ambition, she is pragmatic, ruthless, and aware. To 
achieve her happiness, she is willing to use Marlowe and to 
destroy her husband. 

All the characters, then, act on the assumption that 
their immediate desires and values deserve primacy and ful- 
fillment, regardless of the cost to others. On a first 
viewing of the film, the tendency is to separate Marlowe 
from the rest; Marlowe seems more like a refugee from a 
forties detective movie than a contemporary of the other 



characters. He almost could have gone to sleep thirty years 
ago, woke up, and was then forced to deal with the more 
cynical and egocentric world of the seventies. When Mar- 
lowe kills Lennox, then, Hollywood and justice seem to tri- 
umph. 

Unfortunately, however, Marlowe is no different from 
the rest of the characters. Because The Long Good-bye is 
Marlowe's movie, we see the events from his perspective; 
by the end, we not only like him but accept his actions as 
proper. When viewed from a less personal, more objective 
perspective, however, his uniqueness fades. His bemused 
tolerance that lets him shrug off all weirdness with "It's 
okay by me," applies only when his self-interest is not 
directly threatened. More than a bemused tolerance, his 
reaction is more properly an indifferent passivity. As 
soon as his interest is involved, however, he becomes as 
cold and vengeful as the others. He may have more charm 
than the rest of the characters, but his persistence in 
tracking the truth and his happiness when he avenges it 
prove that he is no different than any of the other charac- 
ters. 

The Long Good-bye may be thought of, then, as McCabe 
and Mrs. Miller told from Butler, the hired killer's, point 
of view. Rather than the warmth and tenderness that ema- 
nates from real human interaction in McCabe , The Long Good - 
bye is cold and cynical. There is no sincere interaction 
between people, only continual manipulation and game play- 
ing aimed at self -maximization. 



120 

The movie's cynicism is structurally reflected in its 
most brutal and striking scene. Augustine's mistress, 
JoAnne, walks in on his effort to scare Marlowe and asks 
for a Coke. One of Augustine's hoods gets the only Coke 
in Marlowe's apartment; it is almost empty, warm, and flat. 
The state of the Coke triggers an Augustine monologue on 
the general state of Marlowe's apartment and on JoAnne ' s 
beauty. As Augustine is talking, he quickly and unexpect- 
edly smashes the bottle into her face. As we watch in slow 
motion, the bottle breaks into her skin and flies off her 
face. Like Marlowe, we are totally unprepared for this 
violent intrusion; even though we have no personal invest- 
ment in JoAnne, we are sickened by the senseless and horri- 
fying brutality. Marlowe is surprised and stunned by the 
sudden cruelty, as we in the audience are; Altman has 
acted with the same mentality as Augustine. First, he has 
disarmed us by showing the ridiculous, seemingly harmless 
antics of the zany hoods. Then, without warning, Altman 
thrusts a minor character forward and mutilates her in 
slow motion. The action happens so quickly and is so skill- 
fully suspended by the use of the slow motion that the 
-oment becomes hypnotizing and compelling; we cannot look 
away. So we sit there, cleverly manipulated and coldly 
exposed to the same ugly and dangerous violence that Mar- 
lowe sees. 

The camera work also integrates style and content. 
This movie does not try to penetrate the minds of its 



121 

characters; it is not a film fraught with psychological in- 
sights. Similarly, it is not a movie that is interested 
in absolute value judgments; people are out for themselves 
as a matter of fact, not a matter of morality. Some are 
likeable, some are not; still, their appeal and fate have 
little to do with abstract moral evaluations. Lennox, for 
example, is a negative character because he is vain, overly 
self-confident, and boorish. Augustine, on the other hand, 
is much more brutal but is likeable because he has so many 
amusing eccentricities. The technical reflection of this 
lack of moral absolutes is the film's constantly moving 
camera. As if to avoid any definitive or judgmental com- 
ment and to keep the movie outside the characters, the 
camera never settles on one object or perspective. In ad- 
nition to the constant motion, the film is shot in pastels, 
which are neutral colors that also work against any overt, 
cl-^f initive statement. 

Like Altman's other non-linear films. The Long Good- 
bye- sacrifices a tight plot for a more episodic pace. Be- 
cause the movie seems to ramble, its events are not 
enough to generate continuity and consistency. The use of 
pastels and the moving camera help for they tend to blend 
one scene into the next. Perhaps more important for the 
film's continuity is the thematic similarity of all the 
characters and their overwhelming concern for their re- 
spective desires. Even more significant, however, is 
Altman's use of movie allusions and music. 



122 

The movie allusions first. There are several reminders 
of Altman's own films. The death scenes of Terry Lennox 
and of McCabe"' s cowboy are shot the same; both show the 
victim's same look of surprise, they both fall into the 
water and turn over in slow motion the same way. Also, 
the cowboy's death and the Coke bottle scenes come at the 
same time in both movies and evoke the same stunned re- 
sponse from us. The sunset in the Mexican mountains re- 
call the sunset shots in McCabe and Images , while the soft 
focus colors when Marlowe chases Eileen are reminiscent of 
Kathryn's ride back to London in Images . 

Even more noticeable are Marlowe's allusions to other 
films and the Malibu Colony guard's impersonations. The 
guard spends his entire day and role imitating famous movie 
stars like James Stewart and Walter Brennan. Although 
everyone else is puzzled by the guard, Lennox and Marlowe 
are immediately appreciative of the guard's act (still an- 
other connection between Lennox and Marlowe) . Marlowe puts 
on blackface from the fingerprint ink and breaks into an 
impromptu tribute to Al Jolson, the first talking film 
star. Then he meets Asta, the dog from the non-Marlowe 
type Thin Man detective series, who will not get out of 
Marlowe's car's way. There is also an hilarious encounter 
with the Invisible Man, a curious metaphor for Marlowe who 
can be both invisible and highly visible. "Loved all your 
movies," Marlowe casually remarks. 



123 

These allusions do more than draw attention to Altman's 
previous efforts, favorites, and influences. Instead, by- 
cons tantly drawing attention to the movies as an art form, 
he is telling us that we are watching a movie. Thus, he 
reminds us that The Long Good-bye is not an imitation of 
life or literature, but its own art form. For the first 
time, Altman lets his allusions emerge full screen. They 
are no longer left in the corner of the frame as a flapping 
movie poster, nor are they thinly disguised. Now the al- 
lusions are an integral part of the movie, confident with 
being self-conscious. Because of their presence, the al- 
lusions naturally help create the boundaries and character 
of the movie. 

Even more important is the way Altman establishes 
overt continuity within his diffuse, non-linear framework 
by the use of music. The only music in the film is the 
song "The Long Good-bye"; no matter what scene, character, 
or setting is on the screen, the accompanying music is a 
recognizable variation of the song. It plays, for example, 
on the car radio as an easy listening song; a Musak ver- 
sion hums through the supermarket; a Mexican funeral band 
plays it as a dirge; a bartender tries to learn it for the 
lunch trade; people dance to it at the Wade's party; even 
a doorbell chimes the song's first three notes. The song 
weaves in and out, giving unity and coherence to the di- 
verse, episodic parts. Using the theme this way, Altman 
is cinematically coherent in a non-literary, non-visual. 



124 

non-linear, and artistically exciting manner. Tying all 
the parts together, the music gives The Long Good-bye the 
style and identity that Altman was so self-consciously 
striving for in Images . He has finally made the movie that 
is conscious but not self-conscious about being a movie. 

With this in mind, the ending of the film with the 
song "Hooray for Hollywood," the only time the music is not 
a variation of "The Long Good-bye," has several implica- 
tions. As already mentioned, it is a sign of Marlowe's ex- 
huberance over his retribution. Also, Hollywood is an easy 
target whose faults are widely known and accepted; the 
swipe at it here is cliched and jaded enough to be in keep- 
ing with the film's cynical mood. At the same time, "Hooray 
for Hollywood" is an extremely appropriate song for Marlowe 
to sing; after all, the role of the self-sufficient vigi- 
lante has been endorsed and popularized by countless Ameri- 
can movies. Finally, and somehow simultaneously, "Hooray 
for Hollywood" has another dimension. The movie is over, 
..■Fllliot Gould is pulling out of the role of Phillip Marlowe. 
T^id so, to leave The Long Good-bye and the world of the 
movies, he does a little song and dance, a cinematic cur- 
tain call, that takes us out of Hollywood's reality and puts 
us back into our own realities. 

The Long Good-bye , then, is a sustained, original, 
and complete work. When grouped with McCabe and Images , it 
represents Altman 's achievement of a personal film style 
and forms a body of work that justifies his status as one 



125 

of today's more prolific and more important auteurs. Also, 
after The Long . Good-bye , Altman has produced a wide enough 
range of films to begin drawing more from himself and his 
films than from any other source. Which brings us to 
Thieves Like Us. 



Interestingly, a scene in both the novel and the 
screenplay had Marlowe going to a central information-type 
agency and buying a computer analysis of his clues and 
finally of Verringer's whereabouts. This omniscient, in- 
visible agency certainly is consistent with Altman' s pres- 
sentation of omnipotent corporations in McCabe and could 
easily exist in The Long Good-bye ' s world. Its omission, 
for whatever reason, strengthens the impression of Mar- 
lowe's professional competence and self-sufficiency. 

2 

Actually, the idea that the private eye would ac- 
tually give up his quarry to the legitimate authorities at 
the end of the movie was always illogical. For almost the 
entire movie, the police would be seen as ominous, corrupt, 
inept, interfering; the private eye, who was honest, per- 
sistent, and dedicated, was harried and hassled by them. 
At the very end of the film, however, the police would sud- 
denly become friendly rivals with the detective and re- 
sponsible administrators of blind, fair justice. Even in 
the context of these original private eye movies, the con- 
cept of benevolent authority that the ending depends on 
seems inconsistent; in Altman' s world view, the idea has no 
place whatsoever. All Altman has done, then, is remove the 
inconsistency; the law as administered by the legal au- 
thorities is as arbitrary and corrupt at the end of the 
xTiovie as it is at the beginning. Since Marlowe cannot 
trust or interest the police at the beginning, there is 
no reason why he should do so at the end. 



CHAPTER 8 
THIEVES LIKE US 



Thieves Like Us draws from many sources, including the 
1937 Edward Anderson novel of the same name; the 1948 Ni- 
cholas Ray film adaptation, They Live By Night ; and the 
1967 Arthur Penn film, Bonnie and Clyde . As he does in 
McCabe, Images , and The Long Good-bye , however, Altman per- 
sonalizes and demystifies its film genre. More than just 
another gangster picture, then. Thieves becomes an examina- 
tion and restatement of those films. In addition to this 
redefinition of the genre, Thieves also puts Altman' s film 
style in a new perspective. Following three of Altman 's 
most sustained and influential films. Thieves works within 
a familiar visual style. As we shall see, it demonstrates 
both the strengths and weaknesses of that style. 

Before Thieves can be considered, however, its rela- 
tionship to Bonnie and Clyde must be noted. Bonnie and 
Clyde turned insignificant and unfulfilled characters into 
romantic and mythic heroes. Both Bonnie and Clyde were 
poor, restless, and anonymous. Realistically perceiving 
that their conventional futures looked bleak, they became 
bank robbers. In their increasingly violent exploits, how- 
ever, they found fun, fame, and riches. Especially when 



126 



127 

contrasted to the blandness of Eugene and Vilma and the 
evilness of Malcolm and the law, Bonnie and Clyde became 
"somebodies," heroes of the people. 

Thieves Like Us does not share this romantic view of 
crime. The gangsters here never seem to have as m.uch fun 
robbing banks as the Barrow gang did, nor do they find the 
same famie and fulfillment. Instead, Thieves paints a 
darker, less glamorous picture. Rather than depict the re- 
lentless pursuit of the authorities, Thieves concentrates 
on the more mundane, commonplace pressures that lead to the 
gang's destruction. Bowie, Chicamaw, and T-Dub are not 
destroyed because they are romantic outlaws that threaten 
society, then, but instead are governed by the same condi- 
tions of existence that constrain all of us. 

The first sound in the film, the call of a bird over 
the United Artists logo, establishes the film's context. 
In addition to capturing the sound of a Mississippi swamp, 
it also suggests Brewster McCloud and his unsuccessful at- 
tempt to break free. The film's first shot, an excruciat- 
ingly long pan shot, picks up this comment; its seemingly 
circular motion foreshadows the group's ultimate inability 
to escape, even as it prepares us for the scene's unex- 
pected humor. For despite the tension of this first shot, 
this scene is comical. Chicamaw explains that Jazzbo, who 
they will kidnap, sells marijuana to the prisoners; we see 
Jazzbo swerve across the road and hit a "pothole" in the 
road. T-Dub buys size 14 shirts ("Do you think we're 



128 

midgets?") and size 46 overalls ("Do you think we're 
giants?") for their getaway outfits. Even Jazzbo tells a 
joke about a little boy who gives his turtles blisters by 
rubbing their feet on a table. Even more than the jokes, 
however, Jazzbo' s character provides much of the scene's 
humor. Like many other peripheral Altman characters, 
Jazzbo' s obesity makes him instantly identifiable, as does 
his whining fear of personal harm. As the three fugitives 
leave his car, which has a blown out tire and a flat spare, 
the camera zooms in on Jazzbo' s face and hands and the 
soundtrack captures his bizarre and terrified assurance that 
he will follow Chicamaw' s instructions. Although his name 
is briefly mentioned once more, we never see Jazzbo again. 
Still, like Verringer, the preacher, and the other periph- 
eral Altman characters, Jazzbo' s unusual physical appear- 
ance and personality develop his character effectively and 
efficiently. 

Other Altman-esque details abound. The overlapping 
soundtrack, even more inaudible than usual, offers a direct 
commentary on the film's action. T-Dub reveals his ama- 
teurism not only by counting the number of his bank rob- 
beries, but by exaggerating the number of them. He begins 
by saying, "This will be my twenty-eighth bank." The next 
bank job, however, will be his "thirtieth"; the following 
one, his " thirty- third. " T-Dub' s tendency to exaggerate 
is further compounded by his counting the hold-up game at 
Mattie's as a real bank job. More importantly, the first 



129 

two bank robberies are accompanied by radio soundtracks of 
old Gangbuster. programs, which make the three's operation 
seem ridiculous and juvenile. The context of the broad- 
casts also warns of their eventual destruction; "they 
blazed their way across the state before being brought 
down by the guns of the law," the radio blares. The con- 
nection between the soundtrack and the characters is fur- 
ther emphasized by the leader of the radio outlaws being 
called the Octopus. Shortly thereafter, in Mattie ' s house, 
Lula tells T-Dub, who functions as the group's leader, that 
he is an "octopus." 

Equally obvious is the "Romeo and Juliet" broadcast. 
Keechie and Bowie have been growing increasingly close; as 
they make love for the first time, the radio blares out 
"thus did Romeo and Juliet consummate their first interview 
by falling madly in love." Although Altman may have been 
trying to foreshadow the disintegration of Bowie and 
Keechie 's relationship by contrasting them with the most 
romantic, most idealized love affair in history, the verbal 
intrusion seems cynical and distracting. Later that 
evening, when Bowie and Keechie make love twice more, Alt- 
man repeats the line from Shakespeare, even zooming in to 
the radio. The device does not only distract us, but it 
robs the scene of its dignity. Altman seems unable to 
humanize his characters and let them enjoy a tender, ful- 
filled moment. 



130 

Altiuan spends a great deal of time developing Bowie 
and Keechie; their unusual physical appearances (so dif- 
ferent from the Hollywood glamour of Warren Beatty's Clyde 
and Faye Dunaway's Bonnie), their innocence, honesty, and 
vulnerability make us respond to them as people, not char- 
acters in a film. Unlike the typical gangster movie that 
glamorizes gangsters, we see Bowie and Keechie as people, 
not as the gangster or social problem and his gun moll. 
Unlike Clyde, who totally defines himself through his oc- 
cupational role of outlaw, Bowie's and Keechie' s Love has 
nothing to do with his being a thief. Similarly, Keechie' s 
objections to Chicamaw and T-Dub have little to do with the 
morality of living outside the law. Instead, she seems 
jealous of the times and loyalties the men share. Since 
this himaan dimension of the characters is crucial to the 
film's success, Altman should be maximizing, rather than 
minimizing our relationship with Bowie and Keechie. In 
the Romeo and Juliet sequence, however, Altman' s insecure 
and insensitive use of the soundtrack makes fun of their 
innocence. For the first time since McCabe, Altman lets 
his self-conscious, highly visible style separate himself 
from the characters. As the result, he degrades them, 
cheapens the scene, and, at least momentarily, undermines 
his film's effectiveness. 

Thieves ' camerawork can also be distracting. The 
film's dominant camera movement is the slow zoom, which 
reflects the use of the camera to direct our attention. 



In the scene where the three are reading the account of 
the escape, for. instance, the camera tells us exactly how to 
react. The camera watches Bowie and then Keechie as she 
approaches the house; from the beginning of the scene, 
Bowie is separated from Chicamaw and T-Dub, allied with 
Keechie. Bowie and the camera move into the living room, 
just before Keechie, who carries the newspaper. As the 
three read about their escape, the camera moves in slowly 
until it rests on the three and empahsizes the words of the 
article. When it lists the three's identities, Bowie 
leaves the room; the camera follows and shows him staring 
at Keechie. We only hear the few lines about T-Dub and 
Chicamaw; we are more interested in Bowie's longing for 
Keechie. When T-Dub reads the longer part of the article 
about Bowie, however, the camera moves back to Chicamaw and 
T-Dub, who clearly resent the extra coverage devoted to 
Bowie. As the article moves back to a description of the 
authorities' reactions, the camera cuts to Bowie, who is 
3till watching Keechie. Then, as T-Diib begins reading the 
article's punch line, "If you can't trust a trustee, who 
can you trust?" the camera returns to the room and rests 
on T-Dub and Chicamaw. Afterwards, Chicamaw and T-Dub 
elaborate on their dissatisfaction with the article's treat- 
ment of them; as each speaks, he is isolated in the frame 
by a still camera. 

This scene also illustrates Altman's functional and 
thematic use of the camera. The content of the article. 



132 

Bowie's leaving the room, and the camera's constant re- 
minder of his physical isolation and desire for the even 
further isolated Keechie all cooperate in underscoring the 
potential discord between the characters. For an Altman 
film, however, the relationship between the camera and the 
action is unusually obvious. The trustee line is funny, 
for example, but the pointed camera work draws too much at- 
tention to it. When climaxed by the set monologues of 
T-Dub and Chicamaw, the obtrusive camera movements create 
a contrived, stagey impression. Like the gangbusters and 
Romeo and Juliet jokes, the obviousness of the camerawork 
in this scene distracts us and self-consciously interferes 
with the material. 

Fortunately, Altman subdues both his camerawork and 
stylistic mannerisms in the latter part of the film; the 
distractions occur earlier in the film. Rather than a 
major problem, they become minor irritations, important 
primarily because they suggest limitations of Altman" s 
style. Except for these few excesses, Altman does restrain 
himself; as the film progresses, he drops the artificiali- 
ties and contrivances of the earlier scenes and lets the 
material present itself. 

Except for these earlier lapses, Altman handles his 
details and characters with his usual skill. Mattie, for 
instance, is seen as the radio plays the introduction to 
the Shadow ("Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of 
men?") , but only after the radio has been unobrustively 



133 

incorporated into the fabric of her home life. Later, when 
Bowie and Keechie come to her Pickin Grapes Motel, the 
radio calls her "the heart of gold." Ironically, Bowie 
and Keechie turn the radio off. The door falling on Dee 
Mobley's head as he leaves the wounded Bowie is humorous 
but will turn on itself as the door to Bowie's cabin falls 
off during the shootout. Bowie's birthplace in the Ozarks 
is reflected in the title story of the pulp detective maga- 
zine; "Fiend of the Ozarks," the magazine advertizes. And 
when Mattie decides to let them stay, she gives them cabin 
thirteen. "It figures," mutters Bowie, whose superstitious 
nature has been hinted at by his earlier reluctance to meet 
in a "haunted" house. In addition, Thieves is shot through 
a filter that effectively captures the feel of the past and 
the Depression without resorting to the overused and senti- 
mental soft-focus look. The costiimes, sets, and objects 
used in the film add to its authentic appearance; the 
faded Coca-Cola signs, thirties' radios, and old southern 
buildings give the film a lived-in air. The soundtrack 
helps, too. Altman drops the gangster programs and re- 
places them with political broadcasts; in the third bank 
robbery, for example, we hear Roosevelt's inauguration and 
in the train station, a speech by Father Coughlin is broad- 
cast. 

More interesting than these details are the minor 
characters of Thieves ; each one is impressed on our memo- 
ries. Lula, T-Dub's young wife, dedicates herself to 



134 

cosmetology; she continually redoes Noel Joy's hair, dyes 
T-Dub's hair, and gives him manicures. When she hands 
Bowie her marriage certificate, Bowie humorously mistakes 
it for her beauty school diploma. Although superficial 
and only shabbily sexy, she radiates warmth; beneath the 
stereotype of the gun moll lies a likeable and decent per- 
son. Less likeable but equally effective is the jail 
warden. Totally self-centered, he gluttonously eats an 
enormous meal in front of Bowie. Too rude to invite Bowie 
to share his dinner, too lazy to walk a few yards, he re- 
veals the extent of his self -preoccupation during the 
escape. "This is gonna cost me plenty, boys, this is gonna 
cost me plenty. " A reflection of the world of The Long 
Good-bye , all that matters is his own welfare. Dee Mobley 
also impresses us with his negative quality. A drunk who 
does nothing without some sort of renumeration, he appears 
menacing but is more sound than fury, easily handled even 
by Keechie. He becomes important, however, because he 
foreshadows Chicamaw' s mental deterioration; when Chicamaw 
brings the wounded Bowie back to Dee's, Dee explodes that 
he has never enjoyed the benefits of fame and fortune. An 
uncharacteristic outburst for a worthless drunk, it lifts 
Dee out of his stereotype and gives him a measure of human- 
ity. Even more memorable are Mattie's two children, Noel 
Joy and Bubba. Noel Joy is a strange, passive girl, chained 
to Mattie's rules of training that will supposedly mold her 
into a model southern woman. Her strikingly different face 



135 



and her sadly docile manner help her, tap dance her way 
into our hearts. Bubba is more familiar and more enter- 
taining; he has the face of an old man and the mind of a 
master criminal (a fate he may be destined for) . He plays 
with firecrackers, incessantly lights matches (a habit that 
humorously pays off when he alone can give T-Dub a match) , 
blows ashes all over the table, and jumps in puddles when 
dressed in his Sunday best. All of Mattie ' s determination 
and punishments cannot tame him. 

However effective and interesting Jazzbo, Lula, the 
children. Dee Mobley, and the warden are, they remain minor 
characters. Although they provide atmosphere and depth to 
the movie, they cannot carry the film. This task belongs 
to the major characters, Bowie, Keechie, T-Dub, Chicamaw, 
and Mattie. We spend more time with these people than with 
the others; because we know them better, we feel their de- 
generation more. 

Altman deals first with Chicamaw, T-Dub, and Bowie. 
Prisoners and later criminals together, they compare them- 
selves to the three musketeers; "There'll never be another 
group like the three of us," T-Dub constantly repeats. 
Despite this boast, however, they rarely function as a 
unified group. In the beginning, Bowie's youth, inexperi- 
ence, and notoriety sets him apart from the more seasoned 
older men. Chicamaw and T-Dub laugh at his naivete and 
even throw a petrified bat at him. When they pull their 
first job, they force Bowie to drive the car; after all, 
'tie don ' t know how to rob a bank . " 



136 

The alliance, however, soon shifts. When Mattie goes 
to the railroad station and leaves the three alone, T-Dub 
and Bowie dream of a more normal life. Although not ashamed 
of their actions, they realize the risks they run. "I made 
my mistake when I was a kid," T-Dub decides, "I should have 
been a doctor or a lawyer or run for office and robbed 
people with my brains instead of a gun." He dreams of a 
farm in New Jersey, where he can put mistletoe on his coat- 
tails and let the world kiss his ass. Bowie does not dream 
of a farm, but of pitching pro ball. He too has no illu- 
sions about the romance of robbing banks. Chicamaw inter- 
rupts this reverie by pushing his hung-over head out the 
window and turning them back to the business of robbing 
banks. Just as Clyde in Bonnie and Clyde cannot envision 
any other occupation than bank robbery, Chicamaw can think 
only of drinking, loving, and robbing banks. Because of 
this inability, Chicamaw cannot share T-Dub and Bowie's 
dreams of a different future. 

This difference is accentuated by Chicamaw' s problem 
drinking, his violent personality, his increasing resent- 
ment of Bowie, and his total dedication to his role of a 
thief. The scene where Chicamaw, T-Dub, Noel Joy, Bubba, 
and Lula play bank robbery reveals Chicamaw' s dependence 
on his role and his potential for violence. Noel Joy plays 
at being a teller and Bubba makes a very funny porter, but 
T-Dub plays only so he can frisk Lula. Lula wants no part 
of the game, thinking it "dumb," until Chicamaw screams 



137 . 

that she had better take it seriously. He scares her into 
submission, showing how dangerous he can be. His behavior 
also demonstrates how deeply engrained his role is; unlike 
the others, he cannot play-act or have fun with the game. 
Instead, he takes his role so seriously that it has already 
begun to destroy him. 

Despite the friction and differences between the three 
men, they do have a relationship that demands Bowie's 
loyalty. Because he feels an obligation to his partners, 
he returns to Yazoo City over Keechie's objections. After 
T-Dub dies, Bowie privately grieves, movingly saying good- 
bye to T-Dub as he stokes the fire. And he calls Chicamaw 
his only friend and hopes to get to Mexico with him. 

Although the partnership elicits a loyalty and gives 
the three the means to live, it fails to satisfy their per- 
sonal needs. T-Dub wins Lula, who loves the luxuries money 
buys and thus offers no real resistance to the demands of 
the three's association. Bowie, on the other hand, must 
deal with Keechie's insistence that he "go straight." Less 
realistically and materially motivated than Lula, she hates 
Chicamaw and has little use for money. Bowie, as a result, 
is torn between Keechie and the two men. Chicamaw, denied 
the benefits of a love relationship, becomes the most un- 
satisfied and least stable. Resentful of Bowie's charm 
and competence from the beginning, Chicamaw has no other 
source of satisfaction outside the group. When this does 
not fulfill him, he degenerates into a psychopathic rage. 



138 

When Bowie smoothly frees him from prison, Chicamaw ex- 
plodes. Bowie. makes him "look like thirty cents. It just 
rips my guts out. " 

By the end of the movie, then, their relationship has 
become destructive and debilitating. T-Dub is dead, pos- 
sibly because his love for Lula made him put his real name 
on the marriage license; Bowie's attempt to save Chicamaw 
provides the excuse and rationale for his death; and Chica- 
maw' s rationality has been destroyed by his jealousy. As 
in all Altman relationships, then, what seemed beneficial 
and positive turns out to be destructive and dangerous. 

This depiction of the disintegration of the gang in 
Thieves makes it a much less romantic movie than Bonnie 
and Clyde . Throughout Thieves , T-Dub and Bowie have shown 
that they are not ashamed of their work; Bowie's only re- 
gret was getting $19,000 instead of $100,000. Keechie does 
not object because Bowie is a thief, but because he must 
divide his attention between her and the boys. Although 
devoted to form, Mattie does not mind when T-Dub reads a 
newspaper account of their robbery at the dinner table. 
Even there, they treat their occupation matter-of-f actly; 
the discovery that they are wanted dead or alive has a 
sobering, but not a moralistic, effect on them. And, un- 
like Bonnie and Clyde , the law does not play a very visible 
role in the film; the gang does not seem to be chased at 
all. Rather than focus on the spectacular and dramatic, 
Altman concentrates on the more banal, ordinary events of 
their existence. 



139 

The film neither condemns nor glorifies them, then, 
for being gangsters living outside the law. As bank rob- 
bers, they steal and kill, but only Chicamaw seems to enjoy 
the violence. (T-Dub tells Bowie that the money is in- 
sured and the bankers just hand it over, steal some them- 
selves and thus turn a personal profit; "It's like a piece 
of cake," he says.) Although they take more risks and are 
more visible, then, they are no different from lawyers, 
doctors, politicians, gasoline attendants. Unlike Bonnie 
and Clyde, who become mythic heroes destroyed by the forces 
of society, T-Dub, Chicamaw, and Bowie remain "thieves like 
us," ordinary people who are defined and destroyed by de- 
sires, pressures, and conflicts common to all human rela- 
tionships and occupations. 

Mattie, Bowie's agent of betrayal, specifically re- 
flects the film's unsentimental approach to gangsters. 
When T-Dub, Chicamaw, and Bowie celebrate their first bank 
robbery and plan for their future, Mattie refuses to join 
in the euphoria; "It'll take more than money to get Bud 
out of jail," she tells them. Still, even with that aware- 
ness, she accepts T-Dub 's $12,00 motel. When Bowie begs 
to stay there, she simply tells him that T-Dub is dead and 
no longer matters. Bowie cannot understand her attitude, 
especially after T-Dub financed the motel and called her 
"real people." Mattie, however is pragmatic; with T-Dub 
only a memory, continued association with his gang could 
only hurt her husband's chance for parole. Bowie's forceful 



140 

insistence eventually wins him cabin 13; as he will soon 
learn from Chicamaw, however, no honor exists among thieves. 

Although Mattie reluctantly allows Bowie to stay, she 
quickly turns his presence to her advantage. Presumably 
to hasten her husband's release from prison, she betrays 
Bowie's presence to the police. In the name of love, 
and for her own self-interest, she accepts responsibility 
for Bowie's and Keechie's murder - although Keechie saves 
herself by wandering over to Mattie 's to get a Coke just 
before the gunfight. Mattie' s tears at the gunfight and 
her sincerely solicitous concern for Keechie during the 
shooting show that she understands her role and condemns 
herself to a life-long guilt. Consistent with other Alt- 
man characters, then, she is driven to an abominable and 
destructive act so that her role in a permanent relation- 
ship could be maximized. More important than Mattie, how- 
ever, is Keechie's final reaction. 

Rather than blame Mattie, Keechie blames Bowie; he 
has crossed and lied to her "cnce too much." Keechie feels 
that Bowie has chosen the men over her. Like Mattie, she 
has defined herself totally through her relationship to 
Bowie; had the roles been reversed, she would have acted 
just as Mattie did. As in the other Altman movies, the 
love relationship raises expectations that cannot be ful- 
filled and leads to destruction. 

When we first meet Bowie and Keechie, they are both 
young and immature. Bowie (his name even sounds like "boy") 



141 

has bangs tkat accentuate his baby face, appears gangly, 
clutches his baseball glove, adopts a stray dog, and misses 
his mother. Keechie is unkempt, has straggly hair, wears 
ill-fitting clothes, and does not inhale her cigarettes. 
They cannot meet each other's gaze and shyly refuse to com- 
mit themselves to an acknowledgement of their feelings. 
"I have a watch for you, if you want it. Do you want me 
to have it? I guess so. Well, I guess I want it then." 

Gradually, however, they become more adult; she cuts 
her hair while he combs his more stylishly, wears flatter- 
ing suits, and gains more assurance because of his material 
success. After she cares for his wounds, they make love. 
And although they exhibit a winning ignorance about sex 
as they wonder how many times to make love and if they 
should during the day and although they still talk in ju- 
venile cliches ("I like you a million, billion, trillion 
bushels full."), Bowie can now simply tell Keechie that he 
loves her. The transition from the awkward, evasive, and 
\ euphemistic baby talk to Bowie's simple, sincere, and com- 

mitted statement of love gives this moment and scene a rare 
beauty and poignancy. 

After this scene, Bowie and Keechie are quickly pro- 
pelled into adulthood. Keechie loses her passivity and 
reticence by demonstrating a surprising self-assurance. 
She tries to make Bowie choose between herself and the 
gang, claiming that Chicamaw is no good and that she does 
not care about money. Bowie, however, sees their plight 



142 

more realistically. Besides being a fugitive with no means 
of support, he. has an obligation to his friends. His con- 
tinued identification with the gang is hinted at by his 
use of Chicamaw's "Keechie Keechie Koo" after they sleep 
together. Keechie, who is ignorant of the origins and 
sexual implications of the remark, answers v/ith her own re- 
frain, "Bowie Bowie Boo." Rather than the private bed talk 
that brings the two closer together, this verbal exchange 
foreshadows the inevitable friction that will separate 
them. 

When Bowie goes to Yazoo City, Keechie feels betrayed. 
Instead of trying to understand and help Bowie, she acts 
selfishly and shrewishly. She accuses him of lying to her, 
using her, and choosing his friends over her. The differ- 
ence between the easily satisfied and easy going Keechie 
of the film's first part and the new Keechie is emphasized 
by a startling shot of the distorted reflection of her face 
in a warped mirror. No longer the sweet innocent, Keechie 
has become twisted and ugly. As if realizing the change, 
Keechie runs to Bowie. Since she has nothing without 
Bowie, she convinces herself that Bowie, who has been so 
stunned by the day's events that the cannot even speak, 
would never let her leave. Instead of leaving him, she 
throws herself onto him. 

This sequence illustrates the relative immaturity of 
both Keechie and Bowie. Although they are forced to deal 
with the adult world and although they are no longer the 



143 



youthful innocents of the first part of the film, they 
cannot cope with their problems. Thus, Keechie childishly 
expects Bowie to devote all his time to her and to magi- 
cally establish a conventional existence. Even though 
Bowie has a more realistic perception of their future and 
thinks more about Keechie' s welfare than his own, he also 
fails to act maturely. When faced with Keechie' s tantrum, 
he is rendered speechless. More importantly, he cannot 
imagine getting to Mexico by himself; this lack of faith 
in his own abilities makes him free Chicamaw, which in 
turn results in Bowie's death. Had Bowie been more self- 
reliant and more willing to act on his own, he might have 
survived. Their transformation into adulthood is not com- 
plete, then. They lose their innocence; they gain little 
beyond the beauty of their initial sexual experiences. 

Although Keechie agrees to stay with Bowie, her feel- 
ings of rage and betrayal return all too soon. Sick be- 
cause of her pregnancy, she does not realize that he freed 
Chicamaw so that she could escape to Mexico and have the 
normal family life she wants so badly. Instead, she inter- 
prets Bowie's escape plan and death as a further betrayal 
of her. This feeling motivates her final bitter and chill- 
ing action. 

Earlier in the film, when Bowie is playing catch with 
Alvin, a young boy, Keechie brings up the possibility of 
their having a baby. Bowie says he heard that children are 
important because they are the way men become immortal; 



144 

although he cannot imagine having a child immediately, he 
wants one sometime in the future. When Keechie tells the 
woman at the train station that her husband died of con- 
sumption (one of Altman's more ironic jokes) and that she 
hopes her baby will be a boy "who will not be named after 
his daddy," she shows her deep hatred for Bowie. Rather 
than mourn his death, Keechie feels sorry only for herself, 
And to pay Bowie back, she plans to punish him horribly - 
by denying him his chance for immortality. 

The impact of this action, intensified by the film's 
final shot of the crowd of passengers moving slowly up the 
stairs, going nowhere "for a long time" and swallowing 
Keechie up, is even more devastating when compared to Mc- 
Cabe and Mrs . Miller . The two couples undergo similar 
fates; they fall in love, are driven apart by societal pre- 
sures and occupational roles, and end with the men being 
murdered and the women surviving. Of the two women, Mrs. 
Miller is better off. She never defined herself totally 
through McCabe, understood McCabe's death, and could sup- 
port herself. Keechie, on the other hand, cannot under- 
stand Bowie's death and feels betrayed. Even worse, she 
is pregnant and consiomed with hatred. Her bitter and aim- 
less emotional state, soon to be coupled with the demands 
of parenthood, makes Keechie "s situation unpleasant and 
pathetic. 

Keechie 's depressing end indicates a darkening of 
Altman's vision since McCabe, then, because she proves 



145 

that love is not only an impossible emotion to maintain, 
but leads to betrayal and hatred. Thieves also suggests 
inherent limitations to Altman's self-conscious style of 
film-making; at times, his allusions and mannerisms dis- 
tract us from the movie and undercut the actions of his 
characters. The gangbusters and Romeo and Juliet radio 
broadcasts suggest a separation of Altman from Bowie, 
Keechie, T-Dub, and Chicamaw. The devices are unsuccess- 
ful because they throw us out of the film and undermine 
our relationships with the characters. Altman has built 
into his film style an inherent limitation; too much om- 
niscence, self-consciousness, and distance from his ma- 
terial guarantees a noticeable failure. Unfortunately, 
Altman will not learn his lesson; he makes the same mistake 
and suffers the same failure, on a larger scale, in Nash- 
ville . 



For a sustained comparision of Thieves Like Us 
and They Live by Night, read Robert Kolkers "Night to 
Day" in the Autumn 19 74 Sight and Sound . Also recommended 
is Marsha Kinder' s "The Return of the Outlaw Couple" ( Film 
Quarterly , Summer, 1974) , which concentrates on the rela- 
tionship between Thieves and Bonnie and Clyde . 



CHAPTER 9 
CALIFORNIA SPLIT 



By the time Altman made California Split , he had al- 
ready developed a noticeable array of personal trademarks: 
overlapping dialogue, episodic pacing, pessimistic endings 
and optimistic moments, sudden appearances of superficially 
unrelated and intellectually undeveloped characters, a pre- 
occupation with whores and gamblers, frequent allusions to 
other movies, and a reworking of a genre. And California 
Split has them all. Its genre seems to be the gambling 
movie but, like Thieves Like Us , it is more a commentary 
on the other Altman movies than on the broader genre. It 
is more about McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Long Good-bye , 
then, than The Lady Gambles , The Lady Eve , The Cincinnati 
Kid , The Hustler , and The Sting. 

Calif ornia Split is basically the story of two men, 
Charley and Bill, who are classic opposites. Charley is 
spontaneous, sloppy, free, irreverent, and self-confident. 
Whether he is being mugged, playing poker, or getting drunk, 
he never breaks character or stops his brash, witty, and 
colorful mutterings. An exciting personality, Charley 
operates on his dynamic and irresistible energy. Bill, on 
the other hand, is middle-class, successful, bored, 

146 



147 

repressed, and rational. Unlike Charley, who trusts and 
acts on his instincts, Bill needs facts and justification 
before he can act. After a race that ends in a photo- 
finish, for example, Charley dances to the ticket window 
before the winner is announced; he just knows he has won. 
Bill cannot understand how Charley knows and looks worried 
and apprehensive. Only after he sees that they officially 
have won does he celebrate. Not surprisingly. Bill is 
fascinated by Charley, who seems to be the ideal person to 
teach Bill how to enjoy life. 

The interactions between the two not only constitute 
the film's major plot line, but also determine the film's 
structure. The first part of the movie is shot from 
Charley's point of view and is consistent with his person- 
ality; it is fast paced, carefree, and constantly alert to 
the humorous absurdities inherent in the film's events. 
The second part of the film belongs to Bill; instead of the 
humor, there is an underlying desperation and ugliness. 
The final part of the movie is a mixture of the two points 
of view; Charley's humor is present but seems empty and 
false when framed by Bill's more serious needs. 

Because Charley focuses on the humorous possibilities 
of every incident, the first part of California Split ig- 
nores the latent ugliness of its characters and settings 
and favors their lighter elements. The first scene at the 
poker palace, for example, is played for laughs; the poker 
players are grotesque or nondescript in a harmless. 



148 

good-natured way. The woman with the bulldog face who 
thinks she is an expert gambler is not ridiculed but pre- 
sented as a peripheral, eccentric, fleetingly revealed, 
and refreshing personality. We do not make fun of her; 
she is absurd but we like her. Even Lew, the thug Charley 
fights and is later mugged by, is so obnoxious, so big, so 
boorish that he is almost a caricature of a movie villain. 
He is so mean and so broadly drawn, in fact, that he loses 
his reality; in keeping with Charley's attitude, he is too 
much. He thus becomes an absurd annoyance, rather than a 
serious danger. 

The fight at the poker table lets us know that Altman's 
world view has not changed. As the two men accuse each 
other of cheating and begin fighting, no one else gets in- 
volved. Instead, they avert their eyes and complain about 
the interruption of their game time. Even Bill gets in- 
volved only reluctantly, gets punched by Lew, and quickly 
escapes by crawling away from the table. Charley, however, 
does not hid from the fight or bemoan the failure of the 
others to get involved. Rather than moralize about the 
incident, Charley's constant chatter is fast and energetic 
enough to dispel any unpleasant implications of the fight. 
Because of Charley's reaction, the game remains very amus- 
ing and non-threatening; the fight seems only a calculated, 
safe, and playful risk on Charley's part. 

Later, Charley pushes on to a topless bar. Here he 
overhears a conversation between a waitress and her girl 



149 

friend, who presumably is a junkie in need of thirty dol- 
lars. The waitress, with Charley's unasked for support, 
borrows the money from the cash register and leaves the 
film. The character is as curious as any other incom- 
pletely overheard and incompletely explained conversation. 
Although she remains an unsolved little mystery, the wait- 
tress benefits from Charley's benign tolerance and ability 
to accept people on their own terms, devoid of any over- 
bearing moral judgments. The sordid potentialities of the 
two women's relationship are thus downplayed in favor of a 
more amused, indifferently curious, and mysterious presenta- 
tion. 

The bar scene is crucial to the development of Charley's 
and Bill's relationship. Bill is characteristically sit- 
ting at the end of the bar, hugging anonymity. Charley 
pushes himself on Bill, who, despite himself, responds to 
Charley's charm and warmth. Almost immediately, they are 
happily drunk, betting on the names of the seven dwarfs 
(an allusion to Marlowe's betting on the dollar bills' 
/serial numbers) , singing, dancing, and getting mugged. 
For the first time. Bill looks relaxed and happy. 

Even the mugging is not allowed to destroy the film's 
light mood. We hear Charley and Bill being kicked, beaten, 
and robbed by Lew. Since the scene is shot in very dark, 
blue on black tones and is very short, however, the beat- 
ing is relatively bloodless. Altman thus insures our sym- 
pathy for Charley and Bill and our continued disgust for 
Lew, but minimizes the pain of the mugging. 



150 

The jail sequence reestablishes the film's light mood. 
Charley and Bill are bailed out by Charley's friend, Bar- 
bara. This scene is stolen, however, by a white, middle 
class family who has mistakenly been hauled into jail. Al- 
though the family mutters unintelligibly and is never visu- 
ally placed in the foreground, their looks of bewilderment 
and their appearances in their bathrobes make them absurdly 
funny. They reinforce the negative portrayal of the police, 
who have also mistakenly picked up Bill and Charley, the 
victims of crime, rather than the perpetrators of it. The 
family makes a point, then, but does so without forcing a 
seriousness or preachiness onto the movie. 

Charley's and Barbara's home is seen through this 
same perspective. Although the dishes are dirty, although 
Charley's relationship to Barbara and her roommate Susan 
are never explained, although breakfast is Lucky Charms 
cereal and a bottle of beer, although the furniture is 
lumpy, the apartment is wainri and comfortable and the people 
who live there care about each other. When Susan, the 
younger prostitute, comes in crying because the man she 
"loves" has left her, Charley and Barbara help her get over 
the rejection. Charley does not give advice or moralize; 
instead, he tells her about the weight of the tongue of 
the great white sperm whale. And even though Susan can 
see through his transparent attempt at cheering her up, 
she responds to his silly, irrelevant, but sane approach 
to life and laughs. Ignore the problem at hand, focus on 



151 

something more amusing, and watch the problem disappear, 
says Charley. .At least temporarily, his strategy works. 

Barbara's, Susan's, and Charley's home is not at all 
usual, but is consistent with the film's point of view. 
A dirty apartment of a gambler and two prostitutes could 
easily have been treated as immoral, degenerate, unhealthy. 
Instead, however, their home is stable, zany, and humane. 
Its inhabitants are generous, uncomplicated, concerned, and 
honest. Because we are seeing the film through Charley's 
unconventional, spirited, and relaxed eyes, the apartment 
seems secure, warm, and even beautiful. 

When Bill leaves the apartment to go to work, he is 
still under Charley's influence. So although Bill's atti- 
tude towards his work is reflected by the magazine's working 
cover, rows and rows of identical graves in a California 
cemetery ("Who in his right mind would put a cemetery on 
the cover of a magazine called California ?" his secretary 
Barbara mutters off camera) , the death-in-life theme is 
casually and ironically treated and then obscured by some 
other activity. Only when Bill assumes control of the 
movie will observations like this be allowed to linger and 
be emphasized. 

The differences between Bill and Charley are made ex- 
plicit in this scene. Unhappy about being in his office. 
Bill calls Charley. While Bill is neatly dressed and sur- 
rounded by the superficially romantic glamour of a maga- 
zine writer's existence, Charley is relaxing in his bathrobe 



152 

picking his teeth. Charley, who is answerable to no one, 
feels like going to the race track and invites Bill along. 
Although Bill wants to go just as badly, he owns his time 
only after hours and must lie like a schoolboy to go. 

The following scenes on the bus and at the track are 
among Altman's most comic and rhythmic. On the bus to the 
track, Charley meets an avid, superstitious woman who is 
betting on the horse Egyptian Fem because she bet on her 
last year, lost, and feels that the horse owes her money. 
Charley uses every rational reason he can think of to con- 
vince her to change her bet because the horse is a loser. 
At the track, however, he decided to bet on the horse too. 
When the astonished Bill sees Charley so confident, he de- 
mands an explanation for the strange bet. "She owes me 
money. She owes my friend money," Charley answers. After 
the race, before the official results are in, Charley runs 
to the ticket window. Bill cannot believe Charley's as- 
surance; Charley tells Bill he can feel the win. Bill re- 
mains unconvinced but finally, after he has proof of the 
win, he too becomes exhuberant. "We won! We won!" he 
screams. "No foolin'" is Charley's deadpan reply, 
"Where 've ya' been?" 

The difference between the two's approach to winning 
is the clearest proof yet of the fundamental differences 
between the two. Charley is not just an instinctive gam- 
bler, but also has fun gambling. Totally at ease and at 
home at the track, he belongs there because gambling seems 



153 



a natural activity and a celebration for him. Bill, on the 
other hand, gambles as if he were slumming; gambling seems 
exciting to him because it is risky and unsafe. Lacking 
confidence in his own instincts and feelings, Bill never 
looks like he is having a good time. Thus, he needs written 
assurances that he has won; once certified, he then allows 
himself to have fun. Because of his repressions and caution, 
he never really integrates into the spirit of the track. 

At the end of the scene. Bill once more shows that he 
is on strange territory. The girl on the bus, who has 
taken Charley's advice and bet on another horse, sees 
Charley at the winner's window, realizes that he bet on her 
horse, and screams and yells at him. Then she begins throw- 
ing oranges at the fleeing couple and finally hurls her 
purse at them. Charley is naturally amused and just grins; 
Bill, on the other hand, overreacts and throws one of the 
oranges back at her. Typically, the orange does not come 
near the girl. "You can't even throw, you asshole," she 

yells. 

Wanting to celebrate their win. Bill and Charley re- 
turn to Barbara's and Susan's. To their disappointment, 
they find out that the women have already agreed to go to 
dinner with one of their regular customers, a transvestite 
called Helen. Imitating the police in The long Good-Bye , 
Charley and Bill wait for Helen, announce they are the vice 
squard, intimidate and frighten Helen away, and salvage 
their evening. Despite the prankster humor and the unerring 



154 



accuracy of their vice square routine, their behavior is 
cruel, unpleasant, and self-centered. This is still Char- 
ley's scene; the other characters stifle laughs and allow 
themselves to be carried by Charley's force and intensity. 
Although still light, this scene is the first in which Char- 
ley intimidates and victimizes a helpless person for sport. 
There is, then, an undertone of cruelty that is a fore- 
shadowing of the film's later mood. 

The unpleasant undertones vanish, however, as the movie 
moves to its most touching scene. The four go to a boxing 
match; they become two couples on a pleasant double date. 
Even if Susan cannot bear to watch the boxers hit each 
other, she cheers with the rest of the crowd. The arena 
is alive and active; strangers are betting both on the 
fight in the ring and on the fights that have broken out 
in the audience. "I'll bet five on the man in the suit," 
laughs Charley as they are leaving the auditorium. Com- 
fortable and happy with each other, the four are having a 
good time; because the four are so likeable, we too have 
fun watching them. 

Their happiness is unexpectedly cut short in the park- 
ing lot, where Bill and Charley are again mugged. Once more, 
Charley takes control and salvages the situation by his 
fast thinking and faster talking. Even in this confronta- 
tion, which is potentially the most dangerous and most un- 
expected, Charley proves his ability to instinctively con- 
trol events and to maintain his healthy sense of humor. 



155 

Although they come av^ay from the mugging unharmed and 
relatively unfazed, Charley's and Bill's luck begins to 
turn. Charley and Bill return to the poker casino. This 
time, however, Charley and Bill are playing at different 
tables and are adrift in a sea of matronly ladies. Earlier 
in the film, Charley had explained that he likes the casino 
because the players there are suckers who think they are 
good gamblers. "Boy," he says, "do I love to beat those 
suckers!" Now, however. Bill and Charley are being beaten 
by those same suckers; none of their fast talking is able 
to minimize their losses. Charley's arrogant attitude and 
boasting has backfired; for the first time, we sense a 
superficiality behind Charley's routines. 

The film's transition from Charley's to Bill's point 
of view continues with Bill's call from Sparkey, his angry 
and unpaid bookie/loan shark. Under Charley's supportive 
gaze, Bill puts on a fake show of bravado and succeeds in 
postponing the payment deadline. Even though the delaying 
tactic is successful, it is the first ugly and real chal- 
lenge of Bill's responsibilities to Charley's more spon- 
taneous lifestyle. 

In the first part of the film, Altman has intertwined 
the characters, moods, and events. Charley's light, play- 
ful, and impulsive personality dominates and determines the 
perspective by which the events are presented. Thus, the 
ugliness of the confrontation between Charley and the other 
poker players is glossed over by Charley's fast wit and by 



156 



Bill's comical escape; the first mugging is softened by the 
preceding warm. drunk scene and following comic jail scene. 
Charley's, Barbara's, and Susan's unusual home life is 
framed by the concern each has for each other and by the 
sanely eccentric and child-like quality of their behavior. 
The Egyptian Fem sequence is so well paced, comic, and good 
natured that it buffers the nastiness of the encounter with 
Helen, leaving only a hint of the imminent mood shift and 
ultimate reassessment of Charley's character. At least in 
the first part of the film, then, the sheer force of Char- 
ley's personality puts everyone, including the audience, 
under his dazzling spell. 

As soon as Charley leaves, however, the mood of the 
film changes. With Charley gone. Bill becomes the film's 
controlling force. And from the first moment, the shift 
is noticeable. In an especially degrading scene. Bill 
meets Sparky, the loan shark, and grovels for more time. 
We watch Bill plead, beg, and endure Sparky' s insults and 
contempt. Had Charley been in the same situation, his 
ability to fast talk may have made the scene funny. Bill, 
however, lacks his charm and instincts; his inadequate at- 
tempts at hustling are ugly and unpleasant to watch. 

Bill's efforts to raise the money display none of the 
film's earlier compassionate and gentle humor. Harvey's 
ESP flash about Bill's need for some new house paint is 
more ludicrous than funny, especially when juxtaposed with 
Bill's real needs. Had Harvey been introduced earlier and 



157 

been seen through Charley's sense for the absurd, he may 
have been genuinely funny and likeable. Appearing in Bill's 
segment, however, he loses the element of respect and 
healthy humor and becomes instead a character to laugh at, 
not with. 

Failing to get money elsewhere. Bill goes to a poker 
game held in a dirty building in a decaying neighborhood. 
To enter the game, he has to walk through a dark, cluttered 
apartment where he is jadedly propositioned by a black 
whore. In the room adjoining the game, there are an ex- 
pressionless woman and baby. The contrast between this 
house and Barbara's and Susan's home is striking; instead 
of warmth, light, and love, there is only squalor, poverty, 
and broken people. 

The disintegration of a healthy environment is con- 
tinued in the film's second bar sequence. Bill is drink- 
ing alone in a bar much like the bar he met Charley in. 
But there is no conviviality here, only an abusive drunk 
woman who, like Bill, has run out of luck. Although her 
clothes and appearance indicate a former dignity, she is 
now shrill, embarrassing, and depressing. She dominates 
the scene, making it as uncomfortable for us as it is for 
the bar's patrons. The hiimor, good will, and optimism of 
the first part of the movie are now totally absent. 

Bill goes back to Barbara's and Susan's house in the 
hopes that Charley has returned, but finds Susan alone. 
Bill is still reeling from the increasingly difficult 



15 8 

demands being placed on him; Susan is still in between re- 
jections; both, then, are in need of genuine human contact. 
When Susan tells Bill that she finds him sexually attrac- 
tive, he awkwardly explains that he has no money. Since 
even McCabe had to pay for Mrs. Miller, there is some ten- 
sion hinging on Susan's reaction. Susan, however, is no 
Mrs. Miller; she smiles, tells Bill that she really likes 
him, and will do it for free. Despite or perhaps because 
of her sincerity and tenderness. Bill is embarrassed and 
clumsy. As they try to struggle out of their clothes and 
get comfortable, Barbara comes in and further embarrasses 
Bill into leaving. As he leaves, he becomes one of the 
many men who have broken Susan's heart. As he shuts the 
door, the camera moves in on Barbara's tear stained and 
suddenly old face; she clings to Susan and tells her of 
the two men they are going to Hawaii with the next day. 

Susan and Barbara do not return to the film; they 
leave California and our field of vision. Their exit is 
to be followed by Charley's return and thus is the final 
segment of Bill's segment of the movie. Despite their 
relatively early departure from the film, however, Susan 
and Barbara are very important characters. 

Susan is a painfully naive, vulnerable, and open per- 
son. She is more a child than a woman, wearing silly pa- 
jamas, exhibiting a very short attention span and an un- 
limited gullibility, vacillating from deep depression to a 
joyous belief that her "lover" will become her husband. 



159 

Barbara, on the other hand, is older and wiser. She is the 
one who copes with the daily living requirements, from bail- 
ing the men out of jail to managing the evening with Helen 
to setting up the Hawaii trip. Although she tries to keep 
Susan hopeful, Barbara's eyes and face show that she knows 
Prince Charming will pass them by. 

Like Mrs. Miller, Barbara probably would not give her 
body, her livelihood, away for nothing, which perhaps ex- 
plains the lack of physical intimacy shown between Charley 
and Barbara and also their separate sleeping quarters. De- 
spite this similarity, however, Barbara lacks Mrs. Miller's 
self-confidence, business mind, and foresight. Where Mrs. 
Miller takes a book to bed, Barbara takes the TV Guide . 
Both women are approaching their last years of active whor- 
ing, but Barbara seems financially and mentally unprepared 
for the transition to a future means of support. In fact, 
Barbara seems more like one of Mrs. Miller's whores, a de- 
cent, sensitive "class girl" who lacks Mrs. Miller's strong 
survival instinct and ambition. 

Although Barbara and Susan do not have a bright future 
or a permanent love relationship with a man, they do have 
each other's respect and love. They have a home, complete 
with Christmas tree lights, and are committed to each 
other's welfare. Barbara offers Susan physical, nonsexual, 
and psychological comfort; in the rarer instances when 
Barbara herself is in need of reassurance and affection, 
Susan is capable of providing it. At first glance, their 



160 

relationship appears to be a reversal of the Altman pattern 
of the isolated individual incapable of sustaining a perma- 
nent relationship. 

Upon closer examination, however, and despite Bar- 
bara's and Susan's genuine and deep concern for each other, 
their relationship is incomplete. It is based upon their 
lack of sustained relationships with men and the more 
practical need of having someplace to live. Given the 
chance, each would choose a relationship with a man. Since 
there is no man, they rely on each other. Thus, regardless 
of how functional or comforting their relationship is, it 
still is a substitute for a total fulfilling one. 

Unlike Susan and Barbara, Bill and Charley choose to 
be together. Charley thinks Bill is a good gambling part- 
ner; Bill expects Charley to help him loosen up and enjoy 
himself more. But like Susan's and Barbara's relationship, 
there is an incompleteness and quiet desperation to their 
friendship. When Charley gets back from Mexico and they 
become partners again, there is an unresolvable tension 
between Charley's absurd, fast talking style and Bill's 
more sober, more troubled needs. Because of the conflict 
between the two moods, the last part of the film is a mix- 
ture of both; we still laugh but it is no longer funny. 

When Charley appears in Bill's window, complete with 
Mexican hat and paper bird. Bill is organizing all his 
pawnable goods. Bill is hurt by Charley's abrupt depar- 
ture and feels left out. Rather than deal honestly with 



161 

Bill's emotional, if neurotic, reaction, Charley charac- 
teristically reverts to the crudely funny one-armed piccolo 
player joke. Bill laughs too long, too loud, too hysteri- 
cally to be laughing at the joke; he is also exhibiting re- 
lief at the reestablishraent of their relationship. 

Partners again, the two set out to raise as much money 
as they can so that they can enter a big poker game in Reno. 
While Bill pawns all his possessions, Charley resorts to 
street hustling, beating cocky young basketball players and 
mugging Lew, who he runs into at the track. And although 
we still sympathize with Charley and still laugh at his 
efforts at hustling, the humor is more forced. Even though 
he still is likeable, he no longer seems as harmless and 
healthy as he did in the earlier part of the movie. 

As soon as they get the money, the two go to Reno. 
Bill tells Charley he feels like he is going to win every- 
thing and must play the hands, listens to Charley's instinc- 
tive and correct assessment of the other payers, and then 
ki.cks Charley out of the room. From this point, the humor 
stems from Charley's efforts to keep busy and pass the time 
while Bill plays. After a slow start. Bill becomes the 
big winner at the poker table. When he exhausts that, he 
turns to twenty-one, roulette, and craps. His streak holds ; 
he finally stops, after winning eighty-two thousand dollars. 
Understandably ecstatic, Charley is already making plans 
on which tracks to spend the next months at. Bill, however, 
is strangely subdued. "Do you always take a big win so 



162 

hard?" jokes Charley. "I lied," Bill admits, "there was no 
special feeling." Charley looks at him disbelievingly ; 
"I know that," he answers, "everybody knows that." This 
is not enough for Bill, who stares at Charley. Finally, 
realizing he must say something, Charley fumbles with his 
money and then looks at Bill. "It don't mean a fucking 
thing," he quietly says. 

A knowledge of The Hustler helps make Bill's disil- 
lusionment over the absence of a special feeling more 
understandable. In that movie, Sarah tells Eddie, a pool 
hustler who loves the game, that he is a winner. Even 
though he has no money and no security, he feels magical 
when he picks up the pool cue. Because he loves what he 
is doing, because he is one with the pool cue, he has some- 
thing much more valuable than material success. That feel- 
ing distinguishes him from the other characters; since they 
have no activity that they can feel at one with, they are 
losers. This is the same feeling that Bill hopes to find 
in gambling. 

Bill, an educated, conventionally successful person, 
is unhappy with the routine banalities of the middle class 
world. He is irresistibly drawn to gambling, but is too 
cautious and reserved to be secure in the gambling world. 
Charley seems to be his perfect mentor. Despite a streak 
of cruelty and overpowering self-centeredness , Charley is 
fun loving, street smart, impulsive. Having no job, no 
family, no real home, Charley is free of all traditional 



163 

responsibilities. Most importantly, Charley appears to 
work purely by instinct and feeling, rather than reason. 
His ability to enjoy himself and control any situation sug- 
gests that he has captured the essence of gambling. 

Because so much of Charley's appeal to Bill stems 
from his spontaneity and naturalness, his admission that 
people only act as if there is such a feeling is particu- 
larly damaging. In a world of increasing standardization 
and distrust, Charley's honesty and integration of his 
public and private selves are refreshing and rejuvenating. 
His admission of only acting like there is a special gam- 
bler's instinct is also an admission that he is playing a 
role. This undercuts the concept of Charley as a spontane- 
ous and natural person, acknowledges a gap between the pub- 
lic and private Charley, and raises the question of Char- 
ley's posturing. He did not know, then, that Egyptian Fem 
had won before the results were posted, but only acted as 
if he knew. In his own way, he is just as studied, mannered, 
and confined to a role as Bill is. His role may be more 
attractive, mainly because it passes itself off as an in- 
stinctive non-role, but it is a role nonetheless. 

If Charley can convincingly act out a special feeling 
that he does not feel and use the feeling as the corner- 
stone of the core activity of his life, he can also act 
out the more peripheral roles. His talent for conveying 
a role explains the zeal and effectiveness he brings to his 
police impersonation, the success and ease he has in 



164 

hustling the kids on the basketball court and handling the 
black mugger. . Charley is as convincing in these roles as 
he is in his performance of a gambler. His entire act 
rests upon the premise that he moves naturally and in- 
stinctively, that gambling is right for him because it 
feels right. Without that instinctive feeling, the role 
of the gambler becomes kin to that of a con man. It is no 
longer a question of feeling, but of giving the impression 
of feeling. 

The realization that there is no special feeling or 
instinct to gambling has important implications to Bill. 
Instead of an exhuberant and spontaneous activity, gambling 
is merely another game that does not "mean a fucking thing." 
At the beginning of the film, there is a machine that 
flashes a still from McCabe and tells whoever puts a quarter 
in (Charley, in this case) that the film will teach him how 
to play the game. And at the end of the movie. Bill has 
learned to play with style. But he still does not feel 
anything; he has merely escaped from one rat race into an- 
other. 

At the end of the movie, then, Bill sits alone at the 
bar. He has absorbed everything he could from Charley; he 
has learned all the moves and has learned them well. And 
he has won. But the winning has been devoid of the feel- 
ing, the excitement, the emotion; this emptiness negates 
the win and makes it a far more serious loss. 



165 

So although Bill has won a great deal of money, he 
has spent many, agonizing and joyless hours v/inning it. And 
in spite of the money, the personal pain and disillusion- 
ment that he has undergone make him a loser. There is no 
special feeling, Bill finds out, only a manufactured sense 
of false excitement that cheapens and degrades gambling 
and gamblers. Had Bill lost the money, there would still 
be potential winners; by making him such a big winner and 
still a loser, Altman shows that there are no winners in 
the gambling world. 

This comment is reiterated and underscored by two 
beautifully understated details. The first occurs when 
Charley and Bill are about to enter the Reno poker game. 
They stop to pet Dumbo, an ivory statue that recalls the 
film's first bar scene and the flowering of their friend- 
ship, for luck. As they do so, a player that has just been 
beaten walks out of the poker game they are about to enter. 
Although Bill and Charley do not notice him, they have seen 
him before. 

In the film's first scene, there is a collection of 
individual types playing poker. One man is middle-aged, 
mild mannered, white collared, and Jewish looking. Al- 
though he does nothing distinguishable, he is memorable 
principally because he looks like Bill's father and just 
like what Bill will probably look like in twenty years. 
When he walks out of the Reno game Bill is going to walk 
into, the implication is that Bill will not disassociate 



166 

himself from the gambling world he finds so little satis- 
faction in. Even though it is not satisfying, gambling 
is a habit that is hard to break. 

This detail is further amplified by the movie's final 
shot. While the singer sings, the credits pass by and 
over a spinning wheel of fortune. About two- thirds through 
the credits, the credits begin to follow the wheel's rota- 
tion until they are picked up and roll with it. The film 
ends, then, on a circular motion - everyone is where they 
began. Some are a little more disillusioned, all are a 
little older, and all are still on the circular treadmill. 
Once on, there is no getting off. 

As the film ends, Charley and Bill, like all the other 
characters, are alone. Bill shakes his head; "I'm going 
home," he tells Charley. "Oh, yeah," Charley snaps, "Where 
do you live?" Bill sadly smiles; he cannot tell Charley 
V7here because he himself does not know. So instead, he 
jr<-t says "I'll see ya ' . " The camera pulls them apart and 
the deeply depressed and disillustioned Bill leaves. Char- 
ley is more resigned to life's lack of meaning and is more 
comfortable in his role; he bounces back much faster. 
Thus, after Bill leaves, we see Charley give the wheel of 
fortune its final spin and then hear him banter and sing 
with the Reno singer. "It's the story of my life," he 
tells the singer as she begins to sing "Bye Bye Blackbird," 
a bittersweet song of endings. "Pack up all my cares and 
woes, here I go, singing low. Bye, bye, blackbird," they 



167 

sing. The next line is even more appropriate. "No one 
here can love or understand me." Even though he has per- 
fected the role to the point where it seems natural, it is 
still a role; we do not know the real Charley who is be- 
hind the role. And since we cannot know him, we certainly 
cannot love or understand him. 

Altman has, of course, been dealing with the essential 
isolation of the individual in all his movies; the movie 
allusions in California Split help remind us of this run- 
ning concern. Although there are several references to 
Disney films, including Snow White, Dumbo, and Bambi , and 
to The Cincinnati Kid , the majority of the allusions are 
to The Long Good-bye and McCabe. More than entertaining 
trivia, the allusions are used to establish contexts, depth, 
and comments on the characters and events of California 
Split . 

The still from the gambling scene in McCabe and the 
verbal cue that the movie will teach how to play the game 
is in the first scene. This is especially interesting be- 
cause McCabe died because he could not play the game and 
could have used the lessons. The next scene also uses an 
allusion, this time to The Long Good-bye . Bill and Char- 
ley bet on the seven dwarfs, just as Marlowe and Lennox 
bet on the three brothers and on the dollar bills' serial 
numbers. Soon thereafter, in both The Long Good-bye and 
California Split , the male leads are thrown into jail. 
And when Charley imitates the cops in Helen's scene, he is 
imitating the ones who shook Marlowe down. 



168 

The allusions go beyond specific references; the char- 
acters themselves allude to and define themselves in refer- 
ence to the other movies. Susan and Barbara, for example, 
are directly contrasted with Mrs. Miller. When they cling 
to each other, they do so against Mrs. Miller's question, 
"What do you do when two whores get sweet on each other?" 
Whey they take down their Christmas lights and plan for 
next year's display, they recall Mrs. Miller's observation 
that "a good whore with time on her hands will turn to 
religion nine times out of ten." And when Susan offers 
herself to Bill, she does so against Mrs. Miller's insis- 
tence that McCabe pay. The association with Mrs. Miller 
gives us an immediate context for Susan and Barbara. When 
taken alone, Barbara and Susan appear to be unable to 
satisfactorily shape their lives. But when the religion 
they turn to is dime store Christmas lights and when they 
cannot even get genuinely sweet on each other or even be- 
gin to manage their future, they show that they are in need 
of a woman (or man) like Mrs. Miller to take care of them. 
Without seeing McCabe, the same observations could be made; 
a knowledge of the comparison between Mrs. Miller and Susan 
and Barbara, however, makes Barbara and Susan even more 
poignant and more vulnerable. 

Although Images ' Kathryn and The Long Good-bye ' s Roger 
Wade are writers. Bill does not share their creativity or 
their colorful nature. Instead, Bill's inability to fit 
comfortably into his chosen role, his relationship with 



169 

Susan, and his final losing in winning all suggest a kin- 
ship with McCabe. McCabe spends his time trying to become 
a respectable middle class businessman; Bill, on the other 
hand, tries to disassociate himself from its repressive 
role demands and wants to capture the more immediate emo- 
tional intensity and romanticism of the gambler. Neither, 
of course, can succeed. Although McCabe has Mrs. Miller 
and thus, however temporarily, achieves a beautiful and 
intense emotional relationship, he never learns his role. 
Bill, on the other hand, has Charley and learns his role 
well. But he learns that gambling is a role, not a spon- 
taneous or instinctive activity. At least McCabe has his 
misguided adherence to the empty code of heroism; Bill 
knows that his dreams of gambling as a meaningful life- 
style are empty. Bill is also less enviable than McCabe 
because he is denied even the few moments of life and love 
that McCabe gets. 

Charley is a more obvious continuation of an earlier 
character, Phillip Marlowe. Partially because they share 
the same actor, the two share a tendency to mumble, a 
touch for the absurd, an affinity for gambling, and a po- 
tential for violent and egocentric behavior. Both are en- 
gaging and magnetic; both are their films' most charisma- 
tic figures. And most importantly, both delineate the 
world in which the films move. 

Charley defines California Split most clearly when he 
mugs Lew, gets his money back, and gets to beat him up. 



170 

Although Charley is unnecessarily brutal and is obviously 
enjoying himself, our sympathy remains with Charley. Lew 
has, after all, beaten and robbed Charley and has gone un- 
punished. If he is to be punished, Charley must be the 
agent. So once more revenge becomes necessary and accept- 
able. Nothing has changed; it is as if Marty Augustine was 
in the background screaming that the man "took my money" 
and therefore deserves "capital punishment." And since 
the principle of self-maximization of personal interest is 
still operative, Charley's mistreatment of Helen, his un- 
announced departure to Tiajuana (still another allusion to 
The Long Good-bye ) , and his hustling all seem understand- 
able and justifiable. 

These comparisons and refinements do not mean that 
California Split is no more than The Son of McCabe Meets 
The Long Good-bye . Although it does deal with the same 
themes and character types as the earlier Altman movies, 
it expands the vision to the contemporary American middle 
class. It also is the first of his to explicitly detail 
a character's moment of realization that his dream is 
empty. And most importantly, California Split finds still 
another way to attain continuity. 

Relatively early in the film, we and Bill become 
aware of the large number of women characters named Bar- 
bara. At about the same time we notice it. Bill remarks, 
"I'm meeting an awful lot of Barbaras these days." He is 
right; the female lead is Barbara, his receptionist is a 



171 

Barbara and is played by an actress named Barbara (Colby) , 
a writer at his magazine is Barbara, as is a waitress. 
When Bill is in need of assurance at the beginning of his 
Reno fling, he sees a female casino employee's name tag - 
Barbara. Bill smiles, having found his sign and his cour- 
age. Then, as the film ends, comes the final Barbara. 
"For Barbara," the credits read. Barbara, then, ties to- 
gether all of the film's episodes because the name enforces 
a continuous thread. It gives Bill critical comfort and 
gives Altman a heightened personal involvement; the film 
is special because it is for her. And because we too can 
discover all the Barbaras with Bill, we are also partici- 
pants and beneficiaries in the device. 

California Split is, then, a derivative work. Even 
if it does not have the originality of McCabe, Images , or 
The Long Good-bye , it is a sustained and complex film. 
There is the totally new method of continuity here and 
there are more major and better developed characters. Also, 
there is a more varied emotional range and mood shift in 
California Split than in the other Altman movies. His fun- 
niest and warmest comic moments are here, along with some 
of his quietest and most effective tragedy. Unfortunately, 
in his next movie, Nashville , Altman will strive for even 
greater range, but will sacrifice the depth and humanity 
he achieves in California Split. 



CHAPTER 10 
NASHVILLE 



Since NashviLle is the first Altman film since MASH 
to receive widespread media attention, it may be remembered 
as the movie that brought him back into the public eye. It 
also may be remembered for its kaleidoscopic motion and 
intertwining of its characters' lives. It will not be re- 
membered, however, for its thematic depth or its well drawn 
characters. 

When Altman decided to make a two-and-one-half hour 
movie about twenty-four characters (or a little more than 
six minutes for each one) , he had to resort to caricatures, 
stereotypes, and simplifications. Since there simply is 

no time to effectively develop so many characters, Altman 

1 
utilized these devices in order to tell the story. 

Several character types exist in Nashville . Perhaps 
most striking are those characters that are least developed 
but original, like the Tricycle Man. He never speaks, but 
appears mysteriously throughout the movie, doing his magic 
tricks f giving characters silent support, or just moving 
through the frame. Although his role cries out for inter- 
pretation, no clues are given to his identity and he re- 
mains an entertaining visual mystery. The soldier is 

172 



173 

another unusual character. Since his mother saved Barbara 
Jean's life years ago, the soldier has been raised in awe 
of Barbara Jean. Rather than enjoy her music, he hovers 
respectfully around her, a frightening representation of 

the total fan. Rather than enriching himself, his slavish 

2 

devotion to his idol has dehumanized him. 

Lacking the intellectual information necessary to 
categorize these two characters, we can only respond to 
them emotionally. Just the opposite is true of several 
other characters. We know too much about them to react 
emotionally, but not enough to react intellectually. Lady 
Pearl, for example, seems gracious and competent, but is 
also tearful and withdrawn as she reminisces about the Ken- 
nedy boys' Presidential campaigns. Although her preoccupa- 
tion foreshadows the film's climactic assasination and con- 
trasts the Kennedy charisma with Hal Phillip Walker's anony- 
mous media politics. Pearl's inability to adjust to the 
present conflicts with the rest of her personality. Since 
we do not know enough about her to reconcile her two sides, 
we fail to believe in her. 

Like Lady Pearl, Barbara Jean is incompletely developed 
and, as a result, ineffective. Although we can see her in- 
stability and fragility, we cannot understand her nervous 
breakdown. Although her eager acknowledgement of the fans 
at the airport and the hospital suggests her happiness with 
the role of a star, the private Barbara Jean cannot mentally 
withstand its demands. Again, we do not know why. We are 



174 

always kept on the outside of Barbara Jean; we watch her 
collapse and get murdered, but never get to know or under- 
stand her. As a result, we never develop a sustained iden- 
tification or personal relationship with her. Had our in- 
volvement with her been more deeply cultivated, her murder 

3 

and the film's ending would have had more of an impact. 

Other stereotypcial characters are merely trite. Tri- 
plette, for example, is Nashville ' s company man. Anony- 
mously good looking and innocuous, he sneaks into hotel 
and hospital rooms, quietly pursues his interests, and per- 
severes. All image and no substance, Triplette is one of 
the film's most dangerous and negative characters because 
he packages the events and climates of the times. His 
facelessness and reliance on superficiality and style make 
him a familiar evil . of our age. 

Kenny, the assa-ssin-, is another stereotype. A "tourist- 

4 
drifter," he is polite and nondescript. One of those quiet 

losers of life, we only see him at a distance: his car 
blows up in the traffic jam; he gives Mr. Green comfort and 
sympathy; he talks to his mother on long distance and as- 
sures her he has not picked up a fungus from the rooming 
house's sheets; he fails to attrack L.A. Joan's interest. 
At the end of the movie, when he shoots Barbara Jean, he 
becomes another of those repressed individuals who uses vio- 
lence to gain attention. Unfortunately, Altman uses the 
cliche without illuminating, refining, or explaining the 
stereotype. Because Kenny remains a stereotype, our 



reaction to the murder is dulled; we have seen too many 
similar situations to respond to Barbara Jean's murder in 
a less jaded way. Although our reaction reinforces Nash - 
ville ' s criticism of America as violent and egotistical, 
the reaction is obtained cheaply and deceptively. Had 
Altman developed Kenny and Barbara Jean as people, our 
reaction to the assassination would have been more telling. 

But by keeping us so distant from both characters, Altman 

5 
creates and guarantees a detached audience response. 

Although most of Nashville ' s characters are stereotypi- 
cal, Sueleen Gay, Wade, and Linnea Reese transcend their 
types and become real people. Sueleen, a talentless singer 
who dreams of being a star, demonstrates the strength of 
her dreams. Even after being ridiculed and forced to strip 
at the smoker, she still hopes for the big break. More 
promising than her show business future, however, is her 
friendship with a loud, crassy co-worker. Wade. Because 
he really cares for her, he tells her that she cannot sing 
and tries to get her out of Nashville. We do not find out 
if he succeeds or even if she could be happy without her 
dreams; we do not even know enough about Wade to substan- 
tiate our positive response to him. But Sueleen 's refresh- 
ing innocence and Wade's honesty and insight into Nash- 
ville's false values, when added to the human affection 
they demonstrate towards each other, give them a dimension 
of humanity and individuality missing from Nashville ' s 
other characters. 



176 

Linnea Reese is perhaps the film's most intriguing, 
most complex character. An outsider within Nashville's 
power structure, she is the only white gospel singer in 
a black choir and goes to the black church. Seemingly un- 
impressed by the false tinsel of show business, she is 
happiest when at home with her two deaf children. Quietly 
dissatisfied with her marriage, however, she uneasily goes 
to Tom's motel room. After they make love and she begins 
to leave, Tom calls another girl. Despite Tom's insensi- 
tivity, Linnea smiles, kisses him, and tells him in sign 
language that she is happy to have met him. Because she 
seems so giving, so vulnerable, and so unhappy, Tom's 
shallowness and callousness angers and embarrasses us. 
Unlike the other characters, Linnea seems to deserve much 
more. 

We see Linnea one more time, at the final rally. 
There too she differentiates herself. After Barbara Jean 
is shot, Linnea alone acts humanely. Realizing that a life 
has just been taken, she "stands devastated, somehow unable 
to reconcile any of it with the song." Linnea, unlike the 
others, recognizes the value of life; she needs, respects, 
and strives for genuine human interaction. Although we do 
not spend much time with her, Linnea projects a troubled 
but alive presence that makes her unique and effective. 

Even though Nashville has twenty-four major characters, 
it is more a socio-political statement about contemporary 
America than a character study. Although the nature of 



177 

society has not changed since McCabe, although Z^erica is 
still ruled by- invisible corporate powers, the ordinary 
people have changed. In McCabe, people were sufficiently 
selfless, albeit misguided, to work together so that the 
church, the symbol of civilization, could be saved. By 
the nineteen-thirties and Thieves Like Us , people had lost 
the ability to work together; the question was no longer 
the survival of society but of the individual. In addition, 
McCabe 's and Mrs. Miller's love had been replaced by 
Keechie's ultimate hatred for Bowie. In today's society, 
even this hatred, a deep and personal emotional commitment, 
vanishes. Instead, Altman finds modern America composed 
of individuals uncommitted to another person or a social 
group. The concept of social responsibility has been re- 
placed by the carnival-like megaphone of Hal Phillip Walker, 
who himself is invisible. Triplette understands that poli- 
tics and show business have become indistinguishable. Thus, 
Haven supports the rally because he has been tantalized with 
the promise of Tennessee's governship. Bartlett, Barbara 
Jean's manager-husband, thinks that Walker is an unaccept- 
able candidate, but hopes Barbara Jean's appearance at the 
rally will make up for her cancelled concert. People in 
Nashville are, then, no different from those in The Long 
Good-bye ; in both, they act only out of self-interest. 

Although both Nashville and McCabe end in scenes of 
public crises, the endings are only superficially similar. 
In McCabe, the townspeople, who know each other, respond 



178 



selflessly to save a common symbol of their lives. In 
Nashville , the . anonymous crowd cares only about hearing a 
concert. When Barbara Jean is killed, the human impulse 
is to panic and run. As soon as Albequergue gets control, 
however, the crowd calms down, cooly accepts the shooting, 
and joins Albequergue in singing "It don't worry me." 
Rather than affirm the resilience of the human spirit and 
the ability of people to work together in a crisis, the 
ending ironically and depressingly comments on the lack of 
human feeling in today's world. Unlike McCabe, Nashville 
shows us a faceless crowd interested only in self -survival. 

This comment on America is not new; Altman made it in 
The Long Good-bye and, to a lesser extent, in California 
Split. Los Angeles, gambling, and sleuthing are, however, 
idiosyncratic and specific worlds that do not easily gen- 
eralize to the rest of America. With Nashville , Altman is 
able to be more comprehensive and inclusive. 

Nashville is the center of the new South, a place 
'A-here the traditions of the past blend with the optimism 
and material prosperity of the present. Although it, like 
Hollywood, is a dream factory for those who want to be show 
business stars and although it revolves around its success 
stories, the dream and the stars seem more accessible, more 
human, and more committed in Nashville. The heroes, includ- 
ing Haven, Linnea, and Tommy Brown, sit in the same bars 
that the locals do and drive the same types of cars. They 
all go to neighborhood churches, sing in local choirs and 



179 

live in comfortable but modest homes o Uninsulated from 
the outside world, they deal with the more ordinary people, 
including lawyers, doctors, nurses, farmers, tourists, 
waitresses, chauffeurs, patients, soldiers. When Barbara 
Jean is in the hospital, for example, she sings in the 
church choir and cares about Mr, Green and his sick wife. 
She is not a prima donna or temperamental star, then, but 
an interested person too. When Tom wants to call Linnea, 
he does not have to go through personal secretaries and 
answering services; he just picks up the phone, dials her 
number, and talks to her. Nashville , then, is not just 
about a rich and atypical group of country-western stars, 
but about us all. The characters in the film encompass 
every economic, occupational, and social group; if someone 
is not in Nashville , he or she is probably not in America 
either. So when Joan Tewkesbury, the scriptwriter, says 
that "All you need to do is add yourself as the twenty- 
fifth character," she is explicitly including us as a vital 

7 
part of Nashville . 

This inclusion goes beyond the usual Altman demand 
for an active viewer. This time, Altman is making a poli- 
tical statement about America today. As American viewers, 
we are a part of that statement. What is said in the movie, 
then, is applicable to us as well. By using Nashville and 
such a broad range of characters, then, Altman has obtained 
maximum generalization; he has forced us to confront our- 
selves in the film. 



180 

As the twenty- fifth character, we are not spared from 
the film's climax. We may get caught up in its pageantry, 
may be shocked and sickened by its sudden violence, may 
be bored by it, or may even try to analyze and thus de- 
tach ourselves from the ending. Ultimately, however, we 
will return to our own more egocentric and private inter- 
ests. The problem of the quality of American life and the 
enormous task of reform is too big for our individual abili- 
ties; we will retreat into our smaller, more manageable 
private lives. In the end, then, "it don't worry us" 
either. 

Nashville is not at all a pleasant movie. Its humor 
is often ironic and sordid; its characters, petty and nega- 
tive stereotypes; its events, bleak and degrading; its pos- 
sibilities for solutions and hope, minimal. Cold, cynical, 
impersonal, it offers little to laugh about or identify 

with. 

Despite Altman's comment that he and his lack of know- 
ledge and superiority are represented by Opal, the BBC re- 

8 
porter, Altman seems very sure of himself in Nashville . 

There is no debate in this movie; it shows us the way 

things are in Nashville, Tennessee, the South, the United 

States of AiTierica. It knows America is a dismal place and 

demonstrates this point by moving twenty-four characters, 

without true human complexity, through situations that 

prove their emptiness and lack of fulfillment. Despite 

all the improvisation that went on before and during the 



181 

filming, the characters remain puppets who reinforce a pre- 
determined political statement. 

Rather than unfamiliar or shocking, TSIashvi lie ' s mes- 
sage is not a hard one to argue against. Since the message, 
although not palatable, is not troublesomely offensive, 
since the twenty-four characters keep the film moving 
breathlessly, since the acting and technical skill behind 
the film are uniformly excellent, and since the advance 
publicity, critical acclaim, and extensive advertising all 
suggested a major blockbuster, why was Tsrashville a financial 

failure? 

Failure is an ambiguous term unless its criteria are 
adequately established. Although some reviews of Nashville 
were ecstatically favorable, many, especially the non- 
Eastern and later reviews, have been unfavorable. Many in 
the Altman cult have been disappointed by the stereotypes 
and superficialities of the movie, especially after viewing 
it more than once. But as Altman taught us in Images , we 
must let the movie generate its own standards. For Nash - 
ville , that criterion does not seem to be critical acclaim, 
but box office receipts. 

From the moment that Nashville began becoming the new 
media event (a phenomenon helped by Pauline Kael's obnox- 
iously self-confident advance rave) , Altman made no secret 
that he hoped that Nashville would make millions. He 
thought it would "clean up. I think it's going to take all 
the money in the world. But then," he added, "I'm pretty 



182 



naive about commercial success." To the end, he, the 
producer, Jerry Weintraub, and Paramount agreed to promote 
the film without any quote ads or "highbrow appeal. Adver- 
tise it as an event, not as a film," Thus, Nashville was 
not "an orgy for movie-goers," but "the damndest thing you 
ever saw." So with almost the entire East Coast critical 
establishment, a cover story from TSiewsweek , and a broadly 
based advertising campaign, 1975 's biggest movie was 
launched. 

Even if unaware of their commercial hopes for the film, 
the opening sequence makes Nashville ' s ambitions clear. 
The soundtrack album spins towards us, accompanied by the 
voice of a late night television salesman. 



"Now - after years in the making. ... Robert 
Altman brings you the long awaited Nashville - 
with twenty-four, count 'em - twenty-four of 
your favorite stars." The music comes in, 
loud, seguing from one song to the next, and 
he continues with a hype on each until every- 
thing has whirled and spun and played through 
your senses. "And along with the magnificent 
stars - the magic of stereo sound and living- 
color picture - right before your very eyes, ^2 
without commercial interruption. . . . Nashville . 



A satire, of course, but also an accurate representation 
of the movie. Like MASH , this one is a commodity, a 
packaged piece of merchandise. 



Nashville is a kaleidoscope, a blur of characters and 
motion. Like Charley in California Split or like its own 
Triplette, it is a movie that has replaced substance with 
style; in an appropriate cliche of the times, "what you 
see is what you get. " But while this lack of depth may 
cause resentment from the relatively small group of intel- 
lectual film goers and would be a possible cause of their 
disappointment with Nashville , the general public in the 
year of Jaws would not be adversely influenced by a super- 
ficial but exciting movie. No, TSTashville certainly did 
not fail because it substituted flash for intellectual 
depth. 

The key to Nashville ' s limited appeal may instead be 
in its unique focus for audience identification. Unlike 
an Airport , which offers familiar stars like Burt Lancaster, 
Dean Martin, and Jacqueline Bisset and immediately lovable 
old ladies like Helen Hayes, Nashville offers actors famil- 
iar primarily to Altman fans. Not only are there no stars, 
there are also no enviable or instantly attractive roles 
to identify with. Unlike the other multi-character movies 
that deal in stereotypes, there are no pre-established 
audience favorites or larger than life super-heroes or 
villains. The "ordinary" viewer does not get immediately 
rewarded, nor does he have enough time with a character 
to develop an emotional relationship beyond the stereotype 
or exterior. As a result, he becomes bored, lost, and 
confused. 



184 

For Altman fans, however, there is an instant target 
of identification with Altman himself. We have been fol- 
lowing most of the actors for nine films now and have a 
surprisingly deep affection for them. As veterans of the 
Altman scene, we are able to welcome his newest discoveries 
because we are old members ourselves. Too, we know about 
his tricks; we are attuned to the constant verbal action, 
are primed for his cinematic moments , and share or at least 
are comfortable with his values. Instinctively, then, we 
relax and let the movie happen; we sit with Altman above 
the characters and share in his vision of TSIashville and 
movie-making. Because of this, Nashville becomes almost 
like an in-joke or an exclusive and self-congratulatory 
secret. 

The in-joke is typified by the cameo appearances of 
Julie Christie and Elliot Gould. Elliot Gould comes to 
Haven's party; we hear his unmistakable voice and then we 
see him. When asked why he is in Nashville, he mumbles, 

"I'm just coming to a party.... I'm promoting a movie, not 

13 
making one." Then Julie Chrxstie wanders into a bar; 

Haven welcomes her to Nashville, the others wonder- about 
her. "Is she the one that got off the train in the snow?" 
Del whispers to Triplette. Although most of us who have 
seen McCabe smile at the unmistakable reference, the walk- 
ons, even to those of us in the know, seem distracting, 
self-conscious intrusions. 



185 

As with all in- jokes, Nashville becomes an elitist film. 
Since the identification is made with the director and since 
that identification is derived from a foreknowledge of Alt- 
man or an extremely heightened cinematic perceptivity, most 
people in the audience will not be able to make the connec- 
tion. Since the events are disconnected and only super- 
ficially developed and since the characters are so shallow 
and unattractive, the more casual viewer has nothing to en- 
gage him. Similarly, the more serious viewer cannot enjoy 
Nashville in the challenging, inexhaustible way he can some 
of the other Altman films; he does not bring anything new 
out of the theatre. So while Nashville cuts itself off 
from the traditional, admittedly small, Altman audience, 
it also fails to be acceptable to the general public as well. 

Since 1968, Altman has turned out an amazing, probably 
unparalleled body of work. Since MASH , he has mastered 
his craft and has directed movies of extraordinary range, 
depth, and beauty. His lack of commercial success is not 
his fault, but the American movie-going public's. Nash - 
ville was Altman' s attempt to woo the public, to out-MASH 
MASH . The result, however, is his least successful movie, 
both from an artistic perspective and from its own finan- 
cial criterion. Perhaps the failure stems from the know- 
ledge Altman has gained from the last eight movies; Nash - 
ville is Altman slumming. Unlike the others, which appear 
to be personal movies conceived, filmed, and edited with 
an artistic and a private purpose, Nashville seems like it 



186 

was edited for what he thought other people, the American 
public, wanted. And for the first time, Altraan seems de- 
tached, uninvolved, mechanical. 

Nashville, then, is a turning point for Altman. It is 
his culminating political statement. It updates his poli- 
tical concerns and broadens his message to specifically 
include us all. Because he has now presented the socio- 
political vision so completely, he has exhausted the issue; 
it is now time to move on to new issues. If he does not, 
he risks repetition and stagnation. Also, Nashville has 
given him a much greater degree of visibility; instead of 
just a brilliant cult director, he is now an authentic 
celebrity. As such, he has the status to assume total con- 
trol over his career; he does not have to worry that the 
movie companies will mishandle and then quietly drop his 
movies, as they have done since MASH. But he has also 
alienated many of his old fans, who hate the idea that 
"their" film director has gone public or who simply did 
not like Nashville . For the first time, then, many are 
skeptical, uncommonly critical, and hostile. Altman is 
confronted with an uncertain audience and is entering a 
new stage in his career. He can learn from Nashville and 
can continue to develop artistically, hoping one day to 
receive the popular acclaim that he deserves. He can 
stagnate and remake his old movies until he runs out of 
money and syncopants . Finally, he can continue to go 
after the broader commercial market. His past record and 



187 



artistic awareness give us hope that he will continue to 
artistically grow; although current accounts of his as- 
sociates indicate that he is already surrounded by people 

who shield him from criticism and negative comments that 

14 
are necessary for artistic growth. His upcoming Buffalo 

Bill and the Indians offers stars like Paul Newman, Burt 

Lancaster, and Joel Grey; adopted from Arthur Kopit's 

Indians , it may be a political diatribe, a fine movie, or 

another commercial attempt. His plans to film the mediocre 

but popular Breakfast of Champions with an all-star cast 

and Ragtime , with an even bigger cast, indicate he still 

wants that big movie. Thus, he can go in any direction; 

the only certainty is that the choice is his. 



For an interesting account of TSIashvil le ' s shaping, 
read Jack Viertel and David Colker's "The Long Road to 
Nashville , " in the June 13, 1975 New Times . 

2 

The mformatxon about the soldier's background does 

not appear in the movie, but appears in the screenplay. It 
is unclear how much background information Altman assumes 
the viewer gets about each character. In any event, when 
information is drawn from the screenplay, I have foot- 
noted it. 

3 

Albequergue is another character whom we cannot be- 
lieve in. Since she carries the ending and becomes a star, 
she is working within the Ruby Keeler mold. She seems too 
vacant, too stupid, and too lucky for us to believe in her 
or disbelieve in her enough, however, to give the ending 
the power it deserves. 

4 

Joan Tewkesbury, TSrashville (New York, 1976) . (There 

is no pagination in the screenplay.) 



188 

Notes (continued) 

All of the. characters are stereotypes; I did not de- 
velop each because the point had been made. Tom is the 
typical rock star; L.A. Joan, the typical groupie. Mr. 
Green exists only to suffer. Del conforms so predictably 
to the stereotypical perception of the new southern lawyer 
that he loses his believability. Typically prosperous-look- 
ing in his well tailored but pedestrian suit and his pot 
belly, he is superficially a pillar of the community. Thus, 
he goes to church each Sunday and appears to be a devoted 
family man. His private behavior is much different, how- 
ever. After the smoker, he realizes Sueleen's vulnerability 
and uses his position to gain a sexual favor. More impor- 
tantly, he has never even bothered to learn the sign lan- 
guage of his children, who are deaf-mutes, in order to com- 
municate with them. 

To make the point of the successful yet hypocritical 
professional, Altman milks the stereotype, strips Del of 
his humanity and believability, and robs him of his effec- 
tiveness. He seems to like his children and be convention- 
ally interested in his wife; he would have had to make a 
deliberate effort not to learn how to sign speak in twelve 
years. Although Altman seems interested in underscoring 
the hypocrisy and inhumanity of Del's stereotype, he has 
overdrawn it instead. And as a result, Del becomes unbe- 
lievable, contrived, and ineffective. 

6 

Tewkesbury. 

7 

Ibid . 

g 

Terry Curtis Fox, "Nashville Chats," Chicago Reader , 

July 4, 1975, p. 1. 

9 

Nashville, at last report, had made about one million 

dollars profit. In light of the hopes for the movie and 

the spectacular profits reaped by the big hits of 1975, 

Nashviile remains a box office disappointment, in spite of 

its modest profit. 

"""^ Jack Viertel and David Colker, "The Long Road to 
Nashville , " New Times , June 13, 1975, p. 56. 

Ibid. , p. 59. 



11 
12 



Tewkesbury . 

^^ Ibid. 

14 

Chris Hodenfield, "Bob Altman 's Nashville , " Rolling 

Stone, July 17, 1975, p. 31. 



CONCLUSION 
THE AUTEUR 



Although the nine films from That Cold Day to Nash - 
ville hopefully represent only the first part of Altman's 
film output, they constitute an already impressive body of 
work. Because they share a coherent socio-political phi- 
losophy and an evolving visual style, they prove that Alt- 
man is a true auteur, a director whose command over his 
medium and his material is strong enough to make each film 
a personal statement. From these nine films, then, we can 
extract both the intellectual and artistic framework that 
guide his movies. 

Perhaps most constant in the nine films are Altman's 
beliefs about society. From the beginnings of modern Ameri- 
ca, he tells us in McCabe , the individual has been a help- 
less, if willing, victim of civilization. As represented 
by the church and Ida's empty marriage, civilizations ' s 
symbols are hollow and fradulent, ultimately useful only 
to the real winners, the invisible power centers of the 
ruthless corporations. Still, the ordinary people believe 
in civilization's promise of middle class security and have 
no real alternative but to cooperate with the corporations' s 
demands. 



190 

By the time of the depression and Thieves Like Us , 
the quest for survival shifts from the survival of society 
to that of the individual. By the Thirties, the institu- 
tions of civilization are strong enough to exist without 
the support of the individual and are indifferent to the 
plight of the people. The people, however, need help. 
Without any marketable skills or resources and without any 
aid from government, big business, or the church, these 
people must fend for themselves. Because they are power- 
less and isolated, they become trapped into miserable, 
doomed lifestyles. The invisibility of the power structure 
denies them a visible target for their frustrations and 
anger. Instead, they turn their rage inward and destroy 
their personal relationships, too. Thus, Mattie turns 
Bowie in, wins back her husband (for as long as he can stay 
out of jail) , and adds guilt to the list of hardships she 
must endure. And unlike Mrs. Miller, who still loves Mc- 
Cabe, Keechie can only feel bitterness and hatred for Bowie, 
her dead lover. 

Although MASH deals with the Korean War in an adoles- 
cent, absurd manner, its humor depends on the same negative 
world view. Alone in an inhiomane war and world, the MASH 
unit establishes a supportive, zany, positive environment. 
Sex, drink, drugs, and fun, themselves a juvenile (if in- 
viting) concept of happiness, are readily available to its 
members. Threats to group stability are either neutralized 
and then assimilated, like Hot Lips, or expelled, like 



191 

Frank Burns. Because the real world is harsh, dull, and 
repressive, MASH ' s own demand for conformity to its norms 
seems a small price to pay for MASH ' s appeal. Because the 
MASH unit looks so implausibly healthy when contrasted with 
the world beyond the theatre, because MASH functions as a 
sane reprieve from the outside world's values, MASH depends 
on the same bleak world of McCabe and Thieves . And, just 
as the movie must end, MASH exists as a temporary aberra- 
tion. Dish, Duke, and Hawk-eye must leave Korea and return 
to their more conventional and ordered American existences. 
Even in this fantasy, then, the values of the hostile, de- 
hiomanizing world intrude and conquer. 

Brewster Mc Cloud more clearly illustrates the strength 
of the real world's hold. Essentially a contemporary re- 
telling of Peter Pan and Daedulus , Altman keeps to the 
spirit of the fantasy until the film's end. There, he 
changes Peter Pan's bitter-sweet ending to the sterner, 
more mythological, and unhappy one. Brewster takes place 
in the Astrodome, a man-made, controlled environment that 
ultimately constricts Brewster. Although he does fly, 
Brewster cannot break out of the dome and escape his earth 
bound fate. Even in dreams, man cannot free himself from 
society's boundaries and control. And if he tries to es- 
cape, he guarantees his destruction. 

The Long Good-bye , Nashville , and California Split 
bring Altman' s vision of America into the seventies. In 
these movies, the strong emotions of McCabe and Thieves 



192 

have been muted by an improved material prosperity and by 
the increasingly complex power structure. The social re- 
sponsibility of McCabe and the rage of Thieves have been 
replaced by a pervasive indifference to anything larger 
than one's own immediate and individual self-interest. 
Thus, until Marlowe's values and self-esteem are questioned, 
everything he sees is "okay by me." Charley and Bill 
hustle other gamblers and victimize Helen because they need 
the money for their big game or want to have a good time. 
Tom can casually sleep with women because he is "easy"; 
Haven can support Walker so that his own political ambi- 
tions can be furthered; Barbara Jean can opportunistically 
use the rally to make up for a cancelled concert. And when 
Barbara Jean is killed, thousands can sing the new national 
anthem, "It don't worry me." Until, of course, their self- 
interest is threatened. 

The pursuit of self-interest has its consequences. 
Mrs. Miller explains that if no one else is going to take 
care of her, she must take care of herself. Because the 
individual's survival rests only on his or her own efforts, 
self-reliance becomes necessary. To rely on another person 
is foolish; the other person may die, fail, or just leave. 
No, in a hostile world, the individual who survives must 
depend only on himself. 

In such a world, then, isolation is both the natural 
and desirable state of the individual. Since the business 
or marriage partner will not always have the same interests. 



193 

he or she will someday be a liability. When the inevitable 
conflict occurs, psychic and material loss will result; 
the individual will be hurt by the partnership. Since they 
will turn out disadvantageously, long term associations have 
no place in Altman's world. Their traditionally depicted 
security and fulfillment never materialize; not one major 
character in Altman's films is involved in a healthy per- 
manent relationship. Society destroys McCabe and Mrs. 
Miller, Bowie and Keechie, Duke and Hot Lips, Barbara Jean 
and Barnett, and even Eileen and Terry. Some relationships 
self-destruct: Suzanne turns Brewster in. Bill leaves 
Charley. The other characters do not even have relation- 
ships to destroy. For Altman, then, the world is not made 
up of couples, but of individuals. 

To survive in this world of isolated, egoistical in- 
dividuals, one minimizes his vulnerability by learning and 
using roles. Without these roles, or prescriptions for 
behavior, personal problems and needs might interfere with 
the individual's performance and put him at a disadvantage. 
McCabe, for example, who does not understand his role fully, 
permits his trouble with Mrs. Miller to interfere with his 
dealings with Sears and Hollander. Because he fails to 
act within his chosen role of businessman, he ultimately 
dies. No other Altman character will repeat his mistake; 
at the beginning of California Split , Altman tells us that 
we "are going to learn how to play the game" and emphasizes 
the game's importance by showing us a still from McCabe. 



194 



The best example of Altman' s hiding his characters 
behind roles is Calif or na Split's Charley. Through the 
film, Bill envies his spontaneity and refreshing impulsive- 
ness. When Charley impersonates the vice squad cop or the 
arrogant, aging, and inept basketball player, he is sur- 
prisingly convincing and amusing. At the end of the film, 
however, Bill is startled by Charley's admission that he 
has been im.personating a gambler, as well; "Everyone knows 
there's no special feeling," Charley says, "you only act 
like there's one." Only then do we realize, with Bill, 
that we have never seen the Charley behind the roles; the 
Charley we know is the one he presents for piiblic consump- 
tion. That is why Charley succeeds; he has learned the role 
and game well enough to be resilient, invulnerable, and 
self-sufficient. Thus, at the end of the film, after their 
partnership has been dissolved, Charley quickly bounces 
back. As the singer sings "Bye Bye Blackbird/' he is al- 
ready bantering with her. "That's the story of my life," 
he jokes. 

The realization that Charley is playing a role causes 
us to re-examine our relationship with the other Altman 
characters. Those characters who seemed to know what 
they wanted and how to get it have, we realize, been adept 
at playing their roles, at presenting public images well. 
Even those v/hom we thought we knew well turn out to be in- 
tensely private characters; we know them only by observing 
them in public situations and can only guess at their 



195 

innermost nature. Because we see Mrs. Miller's expressive 
face and watch, her handle McCabe in a variety of situations, 
for example, we think we know her. But, as McCabe says, she 
"spends more time behind a locked door than any other fe- 
male." When she retreats into her private drug-induced re- 
veries, we too are excluded; her private life and thoughts 
remain unknown. Marlowe works the same way; probably be- 
cause Elliot Gould plays both Marlowe and Charley, the two 
characters share many traits. Like the police, we witness 
Marlowe's brash impudence; as viewers, we follow his pur- 
suit of the truth and thus deduce his personality. Al- 
though at the end we can evaluate his values and his moti- 
vations, we know little more about Marlowe than Lennox does. 
Like Charley, Marlowe is always acting the role of the 
private eye; like Charley, he never lets us get close to 
his inner self. 

The necessity for roles aliso explains Altman's un- 
paralleled use of stereotypes. Perhaps no other director 
has been able to take a stereotypical character and make 
him seem so unusual and original. The entire MASH unit, 
Brewster's characters, Nashville's cast. Dr. Verringer, 
Marty Augustine, all depend upon our immediate identifica- 
tion with a stereotype. After the initial identification 
is made, an individual quirk or trait that gives the charac- 
ter his immediate impact and individuality is established. 
Augustine, for instance, depends upon our familiarity with 
the successful, respectable, corrupt, and inept nouveau 



196 

riche; his amusingly absurd monologues, affectations, and 
inept henchman, are doubly comical because they are repre- 
sentatives of successful suburbanites. Lulled by the con- 
ventionality of the stereotype Augustine is defined by, we 
and Marlowe are astonished by his sudden, uncharacteristic, 
and brutal smashing of a Coke bottle into his mistress' 
face. Especially since he has seemed so absurd and inept, 
his unexpected and dramatic display of violence stuns us 
into believing his power and status. Verringer uses the 
stereotype in the same way; one of the film's most absurd 
and seemingly ineffectual quacks, Verringer and his strange 
hospital are genuinely funny partially because they reflect 
the almost equally absurd faddists of today's society. His 
bold entrance into Wade's party and his surprising show of 
strength there go against the stereotype; like Augustine, 
he reverses his portrayal and establishes a new and credible 
dimension to his character. Because they understand their 
roles, Verringer and Augustine become successful. They 
realize that most relationships are superficial and brief; 
conforming to a stereotype or role is essential if the re- 
lationship' s time is to be used effectively. But to dif- 
ferentiate themselves from everyone else and establish an 
individual identity, they use the stereotypes creatively; 
they let the type work for them by adding an original and 
unexpected twist. Thus, with one well placed move, they 
make themselves potent and memorable. They transform their 
harmless, amusing eccentricities into serious power bases; 



197 

their demands no longer seem annoying trivialities but be- 
come unavoidable and formidable. 

Those characters who remain stereotypical, who quietly 
and unimaginatively play their roles, fall flat and fade 
from our memories. Another set of characters, however, 
either fail to learn their roles or are unable to find roles 
that work for them. California Split 's Susan and Brewster, 
for example, are too innocent and unsophisticated to have 
learned a role. Ignorant of the ways of the world, they 
cannot function without the maternal aid of Barbara or 
Louise. We respond maternally to them as well, accepting 
their incompetence and vulnerability more readily than we 
do Altman's troubled adults, who have had more time to 
learn. Frances, of That Cold Day , Wade, of The Long Good - 
bye, Barbara Jean, of Nashville , and especially Kathryn, 
of Images, are all too troubled to maintain their roles 
and thus lose their abilities to function rationally or 
socially. Totally out of control, they place themselves 
at the mercies of other people, as Wade does, or of their 
uncontrolled emotions, as do the women. Losing the ability 
to cope means losing control over one's existence. As we 
find out most painfully from Kathryn, who occupies an en- 
tire movie with the search for her identity, underneath the 
roles lie not a healthy and engaging honesty, but a horrify- 
ing helplessness and terror. Rather than being more posi- 
tive and appealing, these individuals that do not hide be- 
hind roles are disturbed, depressing, and doomed. 



198 

One character does not fit into any of these charac- 
ters. California Split 's Bill is dissatisfied with his 
ordered, rational, and predictable existence. Instead, he 
wants to be like Charley, who appears to live by his in- 
stincts in a spontaneous, exciting world of gambling. The 
film is Bill's education; he learns to become a gambler 
and, under Charley ^s tutelage, wins thousands of dollars 
in the big game. He also learns that there is "no special 
feeling," that gambling too is a role. At the end of the 
movie, the awareness that even gambling is not spontaneous 
and genuine leaves Bill stunned and empty; although there 
are clues that Bill will resign himself to this insight and 
play the role, we can only speculate on his next step. 

Because Bill is the first Altman character to discredit 
the artificiality of social roles and because he is the 
first relatively controlled and coherent figure without a 
role, Bill's future seems especially interesting. Unfor- 
tunately, Altman' s next installment, Nashville , does not 
address itself to his predicament. Instead, Altman re- 
treats and reverts to a diverting but stereotypical and 
superficial collection of character vignettes. Amazingly, 
then, the nine films do not present a single fulfilled and 
open individual; all the characters either search for or 
already have a satisfactory public role. Perhaps Altman 
feels that the happy individual makes dull art; perhaps he 
just does not see one. In any case, the person who is 
free from roles and happy simply does not show up in Alt- 
man' s movies. 



199 

Although the perception of a hostile universe filled 
with egoistical role playing individuals is depressing and 
pessimistic, it does not eliminate exhuberance, joy, and 
beauty from Altman's films. In fact, the realization of 
pain and loneliness heightens the films' moments of happi- 
ness. The predetermined unhappy ending frees the beginning 
and the middle; since the outcome is known, the emphasis on 
the climax can be relaxed and the preceding events can be- 
come more independent and more valued. Brewster may fall 
to the Astrodome's floor, for example, but he does fly to 
the dome's top. Even though the flight does not last long, 
Brewster experiences life at its most meaningful. Similarly, 
McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Keechie and Bowie, Charley and Bill, 
Susan and Barbara end up alone, but they all enjoy moments 
of communication and fulfillment. And those moments of 
beauty, excitement, and love make life so valuable. 

This perception of life as a series of moments squeezed 
into a finite existence not only motivates Altman's thematic 
investigations, but his visual style as well. Underlying 
every stylistic trait of Altman's, from his episodic pacing 
to his overlapping dialogue to his tangential details and 
movie allusions, is this belief in life's little moments. 
And since the beauty of these moments heightens the emo- 
tional response to other people, to the environment, and 
to oneself, Altman cultivates the viewer's emotional, non- 
rational reaction. 



200 

The episodic pacing in Altman's films is consistent 
with this philosophy. We know the dimensions of the ulti- 
mate ending; the destination becomes less important than 
the quality of the journey. By slowing the pace down and 
freeing it from the demands of an unrelenting narrative 
plot line, Altman gives himself the opportunity to include 
any shot, object, character, or incident that strikes him 
as cinematic. These superficially unrelated episodes may 
be single shots, like the beautiful, nonfunctional sunset 
scenes in McCabe , Images , and The Long Good-bye , Hugh' s 
gloves in Images, and the old woman's quivering face in 
Brewster McCloud . On a more extended level, Altman de- 
velops entire sequences and characters, including Brewster's 
lecturer, California Split ' s Egyptian Fem sequence, and 
The Long Good-bye ' s Dr. Verringer and cat scenes. Although 
their elimination would tighten the plot lines and quicken 
their films' pace, these sequences, results of Altman's com- 
mitment to an unhurried pace, contribute much of the films' 
hiomor and originality. To cut them in the interests of a 
more controlled story line would be unthinkable. 

The emphasis on episodic pacing gives Altman the free- 
dom to use tangentially related or even superficially un- 
related material". It also gives him a method to effectively 
minimize our rational distance from his movies and thus 
force our emotional reactions. Since he can include epi- 
sodes of varying length, he can control the amount of 
background information we have. He can quickly present a 



201 



character or situation about whom we have no intellectual 
information; denied the rational referential points, we 
can only react emotionally. Since thinking can do us little 
good, we are forced to feel the situation. The lesbians 
in That Cold Day , the cowboy's death in McCabe , the Coke 
bottle scene in The Long Good-bye , Barbara Jean's breakdown 
in Nashville happen too quickly and without proper intel- 
lectual preparation for us to react any other way but emo- 
tionally. Images is the best, most sustained example of 
Altman's demand for emotional involvement; throughout the 
film, he carefully withholds information we need to react 
analytically. Because we are denied the answers to the 
characters' real identity and to what "really" happened, 
we are confused, frustrated, and forced into a personal, 
emotional reaction to the movie. And because we are so 
used to being told how to feel, we may be uncomfortable 
with our emotions and with this style of film-making. Are 
we supposed to laugh at Barbara Jean? Cry? Squirm? That 
insecurity soon passes; since Altman courts an emotional 
response, any emotional response is correct. Once the fear 
of an individualistic emotional reaction is accommodated, 
the viewer can relax with the film and become totally in- 
volved in it:. 

The alert viewer is not only rewarded with a more in- 
tense emotional experience, but with a more complete aware- 
ness of the movie's action. Unlike many other directors, 
Altman keeps subtle, clever, and important details hidden 



202 

behind the main action. A careful viewer would catch Mrs. 
Miller peering, out of the door at Bear Paw, birds' names 
on the rest homes and license plates in Brewster , the Art 
Deco apartment of That Cold Day , the older George Segal 
look-alike walking out of the Reno casino in California 
Split , Bowie saying good-bye to T-Dub in Thieves . Although 
these details are not necessary to the understanding of 
the films, they greatly increase our enjoyment and apprecia- 
tion of them and spur us on to even more careful viewing. 
This increased involvement greatly enhances the total 
film experience. Altman's use of multiple levels of dia- 
logue makes it difficult for the casual viewer to under- 
stand what is being said. In addition to adding a realistic 
atmosphere to the film, the overlapping dialogue allows 
Altman to deal with more than one subject at a time. As 
with the visual details, the film's general movement can 
be followed without the careful concentration necessary to 
cc.tch the words. As soon as they are understood, however, 
■the -v;ords add immeasurably to the film. In Brewster , for 
exauvple, one of the funniest lines, "two big Georges," is 
almost lost because Wright mumbles it. If caught, it adds 
dimension to the already comic visual of the old woman try- 
ing to embezzle two bills from the miser. On a more serious 
note, Bowie whispers a moving and private good-bye to T-Dub 
as he stokes a fire; although it adds a dimension of sin- 
cerity and loyalty to Bowie's character, the good-bye is 
voiced so softly and quickly that it can be easily missed. 



203 

The overlapping dialogue does more than add humor or 
give characters more development, but functions as a crea- 
tive thematic component. At the end of That Cold Day , for 
example, Frances' almost inaudible "I want to make love to 
you," voice-over demonstrates her degeneration and adds 
impact to the film's final shots of the boy crying. Even 
more effective are Images' sounds. In addition to the 
moody abstract sounds of the soundtrack are the faint, eerie, 
and compelling whispering of Kathryn's name, beckoning her 
into madness. Perhaps more importantly, at the end of the 
movie, Susannah, not Kathryn, reads the children's book. 
Although this concludes a major concern of the film, we 
hear but do not see the transference. The soundtrack, then, 
becomes a crucial part of the film. Sound is equally im- 
portant in the other Altman movies. In addition to plac- 
ing its climax in perspective. The long Good-bye ' s use of 
varied versions of the theme song gives the movie its con- 
sistency. In Thieves Like Us , the radio defines the gang- 
sters' competence, undermines their efforts at professional- 
ism, and distances us from Bowie and Keechie ' s lovemaking. 
And in Nashville , the songs, which were written by the non- 
musician actors, lend a more personal authenticity and 
realism to the film. Although the inaudibility of much of 
the sound in an Altman movie may at first seem chaotic, 
then, it soon reveals itself to be a very carefully and 
creatively used component of the film. Although, like 
Citizen Kane, the sound may be too dense to be understood 



204 



in a single viewing, it must be fully heard before the movie 
can be truly appreciated. 

Another favorite Altraan device is his frequent allusions 
to movies. Like the French New Wave directors, Altman loves 
the movies and does not hesitate to refer the viewer to a 
wide range of movie jokes and references. From the loud- 
speaker of MASH , which blares out names, descriptions, and 
capsule reviews of old war movies, to Brewster ' s movie post- 
ers to Marlowe's asides to movie heroes of the past, Altman 
characters continually remind us of old favorites. 

Altman does not use the allusions pretentiously or 
self-consciously, however. Instead, they delineate the 
boundaries of his works, telling us that we are watching a 
movie. Rather than imitate reality, his movies remind us 
that movies are a legitimate art form that demands its own 
reality. Because movies operate as a unique combination of 
reality and illusion, they borrow from both. Altman uses 
the actors' real names and Susannah York's real book in 
Images ; Elliot Gould's real car in The Long Good-bye ; 
builds a real town for McCabe ; and keeps Gould's and Julie 
Christie's identities and the singers' real songs in Nash - 
ville . And since California Split is dedicated to a Bar- 
bara, Altman calls most of its women Barbara and lets Bill 
use the name as his good luck charm. He even begins Nash - 
ville with a blurb about its being years in the making and 
with a satire on the merchandising of its soundtrack album. 
At the end of MASH, he uses the loudspeaker to introduce 



205 

the cast; at the end of Brewster , he lets the characters 
change costumes and take bows as part of "The Greatest Show 
on Earth." Altman goes out of his way, then, to remind us 
that we are watching a movie, a work of art that determines 
its own reality. 

The allusions serve still another purpose, especially 
in the later films. Since Altman presents a basically un- 
changing universe and similar types of characters, each 
movie plays off the others. McCabe , Thieves , and Nashville, 
for example, are three separate and independent films. When 
taken together, however, they show the progression of atti- 
tudes of the last hundred years and thus help place the in- 
dividual characters in a more meaningful historical perspec- 
tive. When the still from McCabe is placed in California 
Split , accompanied by a verbal explanation that we are 
going to learn how to play the game, we can immediately 
understand Billys predicament and more quickly feel his 
situation. Also, when we see Barbara and Susan act, we 
have Mrs. Miller to compare them to; again a context is 
"feotablished that reverberates against an entire network of 
relationships. Thus, new life is given to the earlier 
movies and immediate contexts are established for the more 
recent ones. 

The repertory nature of Altman' s actors, technicians, 
and artists also encourages this non-linear, unfinished 
style of film-making. The reputed degree of openness and 
improvisation of an Altman set gives Altman' s crew a great 



206 

deal of individual opportunity and freedom to create. Not 
an assembly line film-maker, Altman expects actors to be 
on the set the entire time the film is shot. Too, Altman 
tries to shoot in sequence. Lines can be written the night 
before; the change cannot possibly jeopardize the ending 
since it has not been shot. This keeps Altman free to use 
unexpected resources and sudden inspirations, like the 
circus ending of Brewster. Sensing the possibilities, Alt- 
man thought of it while the film was being shot, filmed it, 
liked it, and included it. 

In addition to the flexiblity, shooting in sequence in 
an open atmosphere gives the cast a chance to grow into the 
material and into each other. In McCabe , for instance, they 
built Presbyterian Church; as the filming progressed, so did 
the town. By the end, then, life and art had become so 
intertwined that those people did live there. Performing 
was made much easier and more natural because of the per- 
sonal relationship to the sets and to each other; the re- 
sults show in the finished product. 

The improvisation, the episodic pacing, the seemingly 
unrelated incidents and characters, the overlapping sound, 
the movie allusions might give the impression that Altman 
is a loose, undisciplined film-maker whose films consist 
of strung together moments, some of which work and some of 
which do not. Although he may be that kind of person, how- 
ever, the amount of improvisation in Altman 's movies has 
been exaggerated; despite the films' appearances, they are 



207 

deceptively tight and structured. Perhaps no other con- 
temporary film-maker pays such careful attention to the 
relationship of his theme and technique. In an Altman 
movie, even the most superficially unrelated detail re- 
flects back on the film's main concern. Although more true 
for the later movies, which show him in a more total and 
mature control of his medium, even That Cold Day shows his 
preoccupation with the film's structure. Frances' apart- 
ment is a perfect representation of her mental rigidity; 
the half hour spent in it is a direct clue to her mental 
state, as is the superficially unrelated and naively amus- 
ing sex talk in the gynecologist's waiting room. The ran- 
dom camera work and the transitions on reflective wind 
chimes of Images ultimately reinforce the emotional ex- 
perience of schizophrenia and the legitimacy of the artis- 
tic experience, while the random camera, pastel colors, 
and bizarre characters of The Long Good-bye illustrate the 
breakdown of moral absolutes, which, after all, is what 
the film is about. 

What makes Altman so exciting, then, is not his re- 
jection of disciplined or formal film-making, like, perhaps. 
Ken Russell. Instead, Altman constantly looks for new ways 
to unite his cinematic details with his overall, subtle 
design. As a result, his films demand an open, alert audi- 
ence. If we in that audience are perceptive enough, we 
will be rewarded with an emotional and exhilarating experi- 
ence or, as in the case of Nashville , a disappointing 



208 

failure. But at least we will have been active; regard- 
less of the quality of the individual film, we will come 
away from it more demanding, more articulate, and more 
aware than when we entered. 

Perhaps Altman's greatest influence will be this train- 
ing of a more alert audience. He has reminded film-makers 
of the power of details and of the ability to rely on atmos- 
phere and theme, rather than narrative. Already, Altman's 
influence can be seen in films like Taxi Driver (the con- 
stant background action and conversations and the soft 
focus. Images -like colors in the cab) and Don' t Look Now 
(the insistence on an irrational structure for an irra- 
tional subject) . Even more important, however, is the de- 
velopment of an Altman cult, a small but vocal and demand- 
ing group of people who have had their expectations raised 
and who now will accept nothing less than an emotional, in- 
telligent, involving, and honest film experience - from 
Altman or anyone else. 



BIBIiTOGRAPHY 



Burgess, Jackson. " McCabe and Mrs. Miller ." Film Quarterly, 
Winter, 1971-72, pp. 49-53. 

Byrne, Connie, and Lopez, Williain 0. "Nashville" (An Inter- 
view Documentary). FiJjn Quar^e^lXr Winter, 1975-76, pp. 
13-26. 

Cutts, John. " MASH/ McUloud , and McCabe ." Films and Film- 
ing , November, 1971, pp. 40-44. 

Engle, Gary. "Robert Altman' s Anti-Western. " Journal of 
Popular Film , Fall, 1972, pp. 268-289. 

Falonga, Mark. " Tmages ." Film Quarterly , Summer, 1973, 
pp. 43-46. 

Farber, Stephen. "Let Us Now Praise - Not Overpraise - 

Robert Altman." New York Times , September 29, 1974, 
p. 1. 

Film Heritage , Fall, 1975. (Entire issue devoted to Nashville. ) 

Fox, Terry Curtis. "Nashville Chats: An Interview with 
Robert Altman." Chicago Reader , July 4, 1975, p. 1. 

Gregory, Charles. "The Long Good-bye ." Film Quarterly, 
Summer, 1973, pp. 46-49. 

Hodenfield, Chris. "Bob Altman' s Nashville ." Rolling 
Stone , July 17, 1975, p. 31. 

Kinder, Marsha. "The Return of the Outlaw Couple." Film 
Quarterly , Summer, 1974, pp. 2-10. 

Kolker, Robert Phillips. "Night to Day." Sight and Sound, 
Autumn, 1974, pp. 237-239. 

McClelland, C. Kirk. Brewster McCloud. New York: Signet, 
1971. 

Michener, C. , and Kasindorf, M. "Altman's Opryland Epic." 
Newsweek, June 30, 1975, pp. 46-50. 



209 



210 

Quinn, Sally. "Robert Altman is Easy." Midwest Magazine , 
July 27, 1975, p. 13. 

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "Improvisations and Interactions in 

Altmanville." Sight and Sound, Spring, 1975, pp. 91-95. 

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. " Nashville ." Sight and Sound , Autumn, 
1975, pp. 204-05. 

Rubenstein, Roberta. " Brewster McCloud ." Film Quarterly , 
Winter, 1971-72, pp. 44-48. 

Stewart, Garrett. "'The Long Good-bye 'from Chinatown."' 
Film Quarterly , Winter, 1974-75, pp. 25-32. 

Taratino, Michael. "Movement as Metaphor: The Long Good - 
bye . " Sight and Sound, Spring, 1975, pp. 98-102. 

Tewkesbury, Joan. Nashville . New York: Bantam Books, 
1976. 

Viertel, Jack, and Colker, David. "The Long Road to Nash- 
ville." New Times , June 13, 1975, pp. 52-58. 

Williams, Alan. " California Split ." Film Quarterly , Spring, 
1975, pp. 54-55. 



Ne 



BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH 



il Feineman is - and has been since October 2, 194i 



211 



I certify that I have read this study and that in my 
opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly 
presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, 
as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 



'I 



/JK Ben Pickard, Chairman 
ly^ Professor of English 



I certify that I have read this study and that in my 
opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly 
presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, 
as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 




William C. Childers 
Professor of English 



I certify that I have read this study and that in my 
opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly 
presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, 
as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 




Alfred B. Clubok 
Prof esse 
Science 



Professor of Political 



This dissertation was submitted to the Graduate Faculty _ of 
the Department of English in the College of Arts and Sci- 
ences and to the Graduate Council, and was accepted as par- 
tial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of 
Doctor of Philosophy. 

August, 1976 



Dean, Graduate School